Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
When I moved to Toronto from Winnipeg over 20 years ago, numerous film types from Toronto who’d be in Winnipeg would ask me for tips on where to eat, what to see and what to do, so I began to compile a guide, one I had to revise constantly because everything in Winnipeg was changing for the worst. The following are excerpts from the 2010 edition of Greg Klymkiw’s Guide to Winnipeg. Burt’s Buzz director Jody Shapiro was the last to receive it in its present form when producing Guy Maddin’s Keyhole in Winnipeg. I note what is now gone since 2010.
The most important thing to remember about Winnipeg is this: when in Winnipeg, rent a car! You do not want to walk or use transit in Winnipeg. Only losers walk or use transit in Winnipeg. Winnipeggers will complain about a lack of parking, but as the entire city is a fucking parking lot, this will not be a problem. It will be plentiful, cheap and occasionally even free. If you wish to cycle in Winnipeg, don’t. You will invariably die. Do what Winnipeggers do. Strap your bike to the roof of the car, drive to a park and then do your cycling in the safety of the wooded bike trails.
The best thing to do in Winnipeg is eat unhealthy food. The best Winnipeg restaurants guarantee heart failure, strokes, high blood pressure or (at the least) clogged arteries. When Australian director Paul Cox visited Winnipeg to act in Guy Maddin’s Careful, he constantly made note as to how large the patrons of Winnipeg eateries were.
Dine at Salisbury House – the only remaining Sals’ with a smidgen of the original atmosphere is the North Main Sals’ near Matheson Street across from the Transit terminal and Perth’s Cleaners [now gone] and on the same block as the now-defunct Deluxe/Hyland Theatre, which is now a synagogue (at least the building is still a temple of worship). Most mornings former heavyweight Olympic boxing champ Al Sparks [now deceased] dines at this location. Do not bother ordering anything on the menu that appears remotely healthy. Order only the following items: Mr Big Nips or Cheese Nips (preferably with fried onions) or Egg Nips (with regular fatty bacon, not the healthy back bacon). For some reason, the word ‘nip’ in Winnipeg signifies a hamburger (or burger-like sandwich). And remember that Salisbury House is owned by lead singer for The Guess Who, Winnipeg’s own original ‘American Woman’, Burton Cummings.
Dine at Alycia’s [now gone] – this is the best Ukrainian food since my Baba died. John Candy absolutely swore by this restaurant and he’s dead. ’Nuff said.
Dine at Shanghai [now gone] – true 50s-style Chinese joint. Last time I went, they still used the magnificent all-natural chemical flavour-enhancer MSG. Specialty of the House: Golden Dragon (deep fried pork wrapped in deep fried bacon, surrounded by golden deep fried batter – in pig fat, ‘natch, and lovingly glazed with a gelatinous sweet goo.
Dine at Kelekis [now gone] – order the Split double dog with cheese and bacon, the Yale burger and shoestring fries with gravy. While there, imagine the story my Mom told me about when she worked there as a teen. A wizened old man sat in the basement peeling potatoes, waiting for young waitresses to come down so he could rape them. Sit in the back and marvel at an array of celebrity photographs of people you’ve never heard of.
Dine at Wagon Wheel [now gone] – the best Clubhouse sandwiches in the world, bar none.
Dine at Skinner’s – Lockport, Manitoba – just north of the city. Skinner’s has great hockey paraphernalia on the walls. You’ll find pictures of my father in there when he played for the Detroit Red Wings and the Winnipeg Maroons, Canada’s National Hockey team in the 1960s, managed by none other than Guy Maddin’s now deceased father Chas. The spécialité de la maison are the exquisite hot dogs from Manitoba Sausage. The dogs are boiled. The skin is crunchy, the innards tender and juicy. A first bite should squirt hot grease. After you’ve done eating, take a short drive to the Selkirk, Manitoba Asylum and climb up the huge water tower on the grounds. Here you can imagine the hundreds of inmates who’ve also climbed the tower. Try not to do what they’ve all done, which is, to take a suicidal plunge from the top. I personally knew four people (one friend, one cousin and two close acquaintances) who, as inmates, climbed to the top and took deadly dives. (Tidbit de cinema: one of those acquaintances was to be the cinematographer of Guy Maddin’s first film, the immortal short The Dead Father. On Day One of shooting, the young gentleman did not appear. Guy went to visit him and found him in his bedroom under the blankets. He graciously instructed Guy on how to use a Bolex – under the blanket, ’natch. Just before the fellow’s incarceration at this esteemed mental hospital, he bestowed upon me a play about Jesus and his sexual relationship with a horse. He placed it in my hands and ordered me to direct it. ’Twas the last time I laid eyes upon him.) The Water Tower is easy to access and climb. Considering this is a loony bin, its continued presence makes little sense.
Best bakery for pastries, bagels (pizza bagels) and breads (onion pumpernickel) is Gunn’s. Avoid Bingo night. Too many drunks, glue-sniffers and child prostitutes on the sidewalk in front of the Ukrainian hall next door.
Best kosher butcher: [now gone] L. Omnitsky and Sons.
Best Ukrainian garlic sausage: Tenderloin.
When patronizing ANY Winnipeg Watering Hole, pack heat and/or a blade. In fairness, I’ve yet to be shot and/or stabbed whilst patronizing any of them.
St Boniface Basilica – late at night with jars of open liquor, walk through the graveyard, pay your respects at Louis Riel’s grave, stumble towards the imposing basilica wall, cover three of the four floodlights with coats, dance in front of the uncovered light. Marvel at your shadow thrown upon the mighty front wall, which can be seen by anyone on the other side of the Red River.
Driving pretty much anywhere in Winnipeg with jars of open liquor is a goodtime since it is one of the few places where drinking and driving is still socially acceptable. A familiar farewell at the end of most social evenings will be a hearty, ‘Have one more for the ditch.’ This, of course, is accompanied by the friendly action of your host sloshing more alcohol into your receptacle (preferably a jar). Ditches on the sides of roadways are designed as wide and shallow as possible for alcoholics to receive as little impact/trauma/damage as possible when they occasionally careen gently off the road. The ditches also prevent rollovers.
You’ll find many Winnipeg ladies willing to walk right up to your car and talk to you. They’ll sometimes get in your car and direct you to back lanes where, for a nominal fee, they’ll provide tension-relief services. This is especially fun with jars of open liquor.
Let a mosquito land on your arm, bite you and suck as much blood as possible before you smack it.
Any street in downtown Winnipeg bearing a woman’s name is named after a hooker from the turn of the century. Detailed in the famous non-fiction book Red Lights on the Prairies.
Go to the Belgian Club in St Boniface (the largest French-speaking population in Canada outside of Quebec) to drink with malcontent veterans.
Go to the ‘K’ (Kildonan Motor Hotel) and ask if Fat April still works there. She doesn’t, but you’ll be amazed by the startled reactions from those now manning the doors.
Ask a Winnipegger to explain to you how to get to ‘Confusion Corner’. They will confuse you and if you get there, you will be confused.
Based on the novel Jakob von Gunten by:Robert Walser
Cast: Mark Rylance, Alice Krige, Gottfried John
Colonial Report on Cinema from the Dominion of Canada
Zeitgeist Films Brings Robert Walser via the Brothers Quay to North America
Greg Klymkiw Chats with the Twins
There was a time in the Dominion of Canada, on the hallowed shores of Lake Winnipeg, when a group of virile young men, the Drones, assembled at Loni Beach in the village of Gimli to pay homage to the Holy Fjallkona of Islendingadagurrin. After many days of serving the needs of their respective mothers, they looked longingly at the ‘Woman of the Mountains’, who for one of their kind, the mightily domed Magma Head, represented the dream of Icelandic nationhood. For the others, being Mieuxberry, The Love Doctor, The Claw, Squid and Little Julie, the Fjallkona was the Mother of All.
She stood high atop the Fjallkonan Float as it cascaded down the streets – past the Viking Motor Hotel, Red’s Billiards and Tergesen’s General Store. She stood proudly and waved. The Drones were, however, conflicted twixt deep respect for that which was pure and a foul stirring of the loins as they gazed lovingly upon the decades of hardship etched upon her visage, her upper torso hunched over in servitude to the menfolk of her nation and her digits wracked and twisted with arthritic glories that could only represent her ultimate service to man and country.
At day’s end, their bellies filled with Hardfiskur, Skyr and Vinatarta, the Drones retired deep into the bowels of Loni Beach Forest and entered Mieuxberry’s palatial Canadian Pacific Railway boxcar. Mieuxberry took his rightful place in a top bunk with Squid for ’twas only Squid who was amenable to the late night involuntary eruptions of dearest Mieuxberry’s Hagfish – followed often by nocturnal meanderings whilst deep in the Land of Nod.
Though The Love Doctor preferred snuggling against the shapely baby-fat buttocks of Squid, he made do with Little Julie’s belly, which was soft as a down-filled pillow that might indeed have been stuffed by the Fjallkona herself.
The Claw required a place to rest his head that was unfettered by the immediate presence of any others of the manly persuasion. The Claw was, in the words of He who specialised in especially odious diseases of the mind, ‘in denial’. (In fairness to The Claw, however, none of the Drones were likely to admit to the afflictions of urnigism as defined by Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing in his great work Psychopathia Sexualis.) [Editor’s Note: Greg, are you sure ‘urnigism’ is the right term? I can’t find it anywhere. Greg’s Response to Editor: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA – It is indeed the proper term and is buried deep in Krafft-Ebing and appears in an Archangel voice-over – a joke which is meant to make about 10 people in the world laugh: ‘Head size – normal. No evidence of urnigism in family.’]
Magma Head entered the boxcar and as he did every evening, proceeded to silently and gently tuck all the Drones in. He then took his place upon the tree stump in the centre of the boxcar, moved the oil lamp closer to his proximity and removed a slender volume from his pocket. The twinkle in his eye and an ever so slight pursing of the lips was enough to instil curiosity amongst the Drones as to what manner of tale would be read aloud to complete a most perfect day.
‘Will it be the Huysmans?’ The Love Doctor ejaculated.
‘Bruno Schulz would do me very nicely,’ cooed Little Julie.
‘You know what I want,’ growled The Claw, ‘And I know you will not bestow it upon me, so I shall not profane Him by even uttering His name.’
‘Oh thtuff it, Claw!’ Mieuxberry volleyed with the pronounced lisp that consumed his palate whenever Claw haughtily implied that he’d never hear Ruskin’s Ethics of the Dust, his bedtime words of choice. ‘We’ve had to hear that damned Ruthkin tho’ many timeth becauthe of you, I fear we might all become little crythtalths, for Chrith’th thake!’
‘I’m good with whatever,’ Squid opined cheerfully.
‘Will it be the Huysmans?’ The Love Doctor ejaculated once again.
‘Thtuff it, L.D. You’re getting to be ath bad ath Claw. We had the bloody Huythmanth all fucking week becauthe of you.’
‘I’d settle for some Bataille,’ The Love Doctor offered meekly.
Magma Head chuckled and shook his elephantine skull to and fro.
‘Tonight,’ he said, ‘I have something very new, very special and very appropriate for you lads – especially in light of the magnificence of this year’s Fjallkona. So rest thine weary heads fellows, put aside thine petty squabbles and allow me to purvey the greatest words I have yet to lay my eyes upon.’
‘Greater than Hamsun?’ Little Julie queried.
‘Greater than all,’ beamed Magma Head and in dulcet tones, he did read:
‘One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life . . .’
The Drones’ rapt attention clearly suggested that Magma Head’s reading that evening would be no mere precursor to slumber. The eyes, the hearts, the minds of all the young men were fixated upon the tale of Jakob von Gunten and the profound recognition they all did feel in the prose of Robert Walser. They would be wide-eyed and silent until the dawn would break over the hallowed waters of Lake Winnipeg and spill into the boxcar, whereupon Magma Head would gently turn the oil lamp down and continue to read as the golden tresses of God’s warm light of morning caressed the remaining pages.
And their lives, such as they were, would be changed forever.
In 1995, the Quay Brothers unleashed their stunning feature-length adaptation of Robert Walser’s novel Jakob von Gunten and I experienced an identical sense of eye-opening to my first helping of their film as I did when I first heard, or rather, read the novel for the first time. Granted, the book and the film are two works that exist separately from each other in completely different mediums and as such, are of lasting value insofar as I believe it is possible for anybody to experience one without the other.
Ah, but what joy to know Walser when diving headlong into the Quays’ magnificent motion picture. Then again, what joy it is to know the Quays’ movie, then dive with the same headlong abandon into Walser.
The tale, in both book and film, is much the same. One Jakob von Gunten (Mark Rylance) enters into the study of servitude at the Benjamenta Institute, a school devoted to turning out the very best butlers and servants to ply their trade throughout Europe.
Alas, the Institute has seen better days – at least it surely must have – for when Jakob flings himself into its womb of servile academe, he is perplexed by its dank decrepitude, slightly surprised over the money-grubbiness of its principal (Gottfried John) and completely, utterly and wholeheartedly enamoured with the chief lecturer Lisa Benjamenta (Alice Krige).
Endless days and weeks are spent in rigorous exercises devoted to subservience. Jakob occasionally attempts to subvert this, just to mix things up a bit, but as he is drawn deeper into the spell of Lisa, her brother, the Principal, draws himself ever closer to Jakob.
Death, it seems, is just around the corner, for the Institute and its spirit – personified in one who clings to rendering all to a supine position of grovelling. Life in the Institute, such as it is, is not unlike a dream.
Like all dreams, however, it must fade.
Some will fade with it.
Others will move on.
I first saw Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life at the Locarno Film Festival in the summer of 1995. The experience was one I shall never forget. So emotional was my response to the film that I finally gave way to a physical need to respond to the beauty and brilliance of what the Twins had wrought from Walser. At a certain point, my elation caused me to emit tears of joy over their supreme artistry, which astonishingly converged with tears wrought from the profoundly moving sequence towards the film’s end when the character of Lisa Benjamenta, surrounded by the mournful humming of her pupils, fights to stave off the inevitable whilst betraying the deep knowledge that resistance is indeed futile.
This is something that has seldom happened to me while watching a movie – an almost spiritual experience of being deeply moved by the filmmaking and its sheer genius just at that salient point when the film’s narrative and themes are equally moving. It was at that point I was quite convinced I was watching a film destined for masterpiece status.
Add to this the fact that visually, Institute Benjamenta is a feast of epic proportions, with both production design and cinematography that have seldom been rivalled (in the years following its release) in terms of originality and dazzlingly sumptuous beauty. Add yet another element of perfection: a screenplay that captures the spirit and key building stones of Walser’s book with grace, humour and emotion. Add to this a perfect cast, a spirit of cinematic invention and last, but not least, a musical score of such power that it haunts the world of the film as equally as it haunts the viewer.
It has been 17 years since I first saw the film. In that time, I have seen it more times than I have counted. My most recent helping was a new re-mastering of the film by the British Film Institute and imported into an exquisite new DVD from the now-legendary Zeitgeist Films of New York for consumption here in the colonies.
The film is just as great and gets richer with every viewing. If that’s not a masterpiece, I don’t know what it.
I had not laid eyes upon the Twins since 1995. My last memory of them was sitting in some reception hall within the British Film Institute during the London International Film Festival and trying to determine on a map where my Ukrainian ancestry originated to see where it lay in relation to that of Bruno Schulz. At the time, my knowledge of my roots was murkier than it is now and I’m pleased to say that Schulz did indeed come from an Oblast next to mine and that he did indeed reside in the same Oblast for a good portion of his life and career.
Seventeen years, however, is a long time to not converse with artists whose work has infused me with such joy, so in honour of the North American release of Institute Benjamenta via the Zeitgeist Films label as well as two major programmes at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) – one being a film retrospective entitled Lip-Reading Puppets: The Curators’ Prescription for Deciphering the Quay Brothers and the other being a historic exhibit entitled Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets – please find below my conversation with the Quay Brothers on Institute Benjamenta.
Greg Klymkiw: I’m thrilled Institute Benjamenta is now available for home consumption via Zeitgeist Films in North America. I trust you were involved intimately in the process?
Brothers Quay: It was made from a 35mm fine grain and a low-contrast 35mm print both held by Channel Four and cinematographer Nic Knowland, and the two of us supervised the transfer.
I usually avoid watching such extra home entertainment items as ‘On the Set’ segments, as I find they can have the potential to remove any future magic I will derive from the film itself. That said, I trust you both approved its inclusion.
To be honest, the ‘On the Set’ segment is very small, is actually quite all right, and will help considerably in its own modest and informative way as to the location we found and how we worked with it.
Upon watching the segment, I found it moving to witness such commitment, joy and good humour from all the participants in your production, which is so important when one is creating magic. Though this phrase has sadly become a clichéd line from too many who create anything but magic, I still steadfastly hold to the belief that movies ARE magic. I think, though, for that magic to live and breathe on screen it must work its way through every crevice of the picture’s soul, ever forging new waterways and swirling kaleidoscopic tributaries. This is what I see on your set. On a strictly personal level, the ‘On the Set’ segment brought me back so vividly to the production of Archangel where my dearest Mr Maddin and I never once felt the set was anything BUT a secret playground. Am I wrong in assuming you, like Disney’s dwarves, are ‘whistling while you work?’ Is it important to have fun? Are there aspects of moviemaking that bring you back to the joys of childhood? The make-believe? The play? Even to the extent that ‘work’ IS play?
I think we were much too nervous to whistle – literally – but we did have the confidence and the utter loyalty of our hand-picked team. We finished on schedule and under budget and I think we surprisingly proved that our strain of American Protestantism was augmented by Shakerism and Amishism. In the end, yes, everyone was at full ‘play’.
Prior to writing Jakob von Gunten, Walser studied to be a servant and did indeed briefly hold such a position. When not writing, he held several jobs that one might consider to be representative of complete and total servitude. In your film, one of the most indelible sequences for me is when Jakob begs/demands for a decent place to ‘rest his head’. At least initially, this is something that clearly sets him apart from his fellow students in the servant academy (as I suspect Walser himself must have felt like when he himself toiled in similar inconsequential positions of employ).
No one wrote more beautifully about the notion of ‘freedom’, and the un-freedoms within freedom, than Walser. In real life he was a great interloper, a loner, extremely restless, a permanent wanderer and he knew hard and difficult penury but these odd jobs that he so frequently took up were there to protect and keep his writing independent. In Jakob von Gunten, he is both proud and a little defiant, but in order to explore those ‘grey nether regions’ of zero-dom he simply needed a decent place to rest his head and no doubt a table to write on. There was also an enormous element of play-acting, mischievousness, in his role as the servant, but there were lessons he learned and admired and submitted to at the Institute Benjamenta: the renunciations, the strictures.
YES!!! I do so love that notion of ‘play-acting’ in both life and movies. At times, the actors playing the Benjamenta students are infused with a quality of gentle pantomime, certainly not unlike the magical qualities of silent cinema, where performance was rendered stylistically and with a theatrical sense of projection. Granted, so much in those early days of movies came from such theatrical sources as vaudeville, melodrama, and yes, traditional British pantomime. It brought an added magical quality to the medium that, to a certain extent, is lacking in the post-silent era. (There was and is magic, of course, just rendered differently.) However, I am very interested in how so much of Benjamenta is relayed visually – I can even imagine a movie that includes music and soundscape, but where the ‘text’ is conveyed via intertitles. I find your film is so delicately, exquisitely balanced in this regard that while every element of the storytelling is infused with ‘style’ it does not draw attention to itself – you set the ‘parameters’ of Walser’s world in cinematic terms and we go with the flow. To what extent are you consciously invoking elements of ‘archaic’ storytelling and making it your own in order to serve Walser’s vision?
We promised ourselves that everything that we learned in animation wouldn’t be jettisoned just because we moved into our first live-action feature and that the dialogues were NOT going to over-dominate; that Walser’s voice would be heard but only when necessary; and that like in our animation films image/music/sound would dominate first and foremost.
The very exigencies of your production ‘parameters’ (as witnessed in the ‘On the Set’ featurette) seem to allow an even greater penetration into the realm of magic (as cinema and vice-versa). Did making the film in this fashion provide greater freedoms?
No, our first intuitions were correct when we wrote the script. We always told Alain, our co-scriptwriter, that we first had to imagine the setting first, the décor, the light, the music and sound, and only then could we safely permit one single line of dialogue to transpire. AND a lot of them were voice-overs, which allowed even more independence for the image. As you know perfectly well, to do animation is long and patient work, so you think twice and ten times when you have to do a retake. It was so joyous to ask an actor to redo a take and to see how much you could reshape a performance or have them propose something more daring. In that sense we might provoke something and then be there to ‘capture’ that moment. So we were very happy ‘trappers’. We always said that we treated our actors with as much respect as our puppets – which is clearly NOT the same thing as treating your actors as if they were only puppets.
In terms of the flow of both the film and its narrative, there is a clear emphasis on this sequence. To what extent was it of import to establish Jakob’s ‘difference’ at this juncture in the proceedings?
Yes, it was very important that early on there be this sudden unexpected moment of Jakob’s revolt. It’s the moment where he’s trying to swallow the gruel for dinner that he begins to gag and violently shoves the plate away, and then there’s a hard cut to him falling onto the floor and grabbing Lisa’s ankles and begging her desperately for his own room. But after that it all takes care of itself and we don’t make a feast of it.
In terms of crafting a final shooting script, did the process of creating this sequence affect the content that precedes and follows this sequence?
No, it was always there in the script, as it was in the novella, but it allowed for his singular subjective voice-overs to really begin to flow and to comment on the hermetic cosmos of the moribund Institute Benjamenta, the mysterious brother and sister, his fellow students, particularly Kraus, who was all important for Jakob – and for us – in terms of creating the ‘Benjamentian’ perfect zero.
Do you recall the nature of your conversations with Mark Rylance, Alice Krige and Gottfried John regarding this sequence?
No, we don’t, but for sure Lisa has already divined in Jakob the ‘Prince-ling’ who will hopefully come to awaken her from her deep human sleep with a kiss, so she’s already highly pre-disposed towards him as this mysterious interloper who’s just arrived at the Institute. It’s as though at the beginning of the film when she’s bathed in sweat and dream, she’s invoked his arrival. And of course she’s Sleeping Beauty. So there was the whole fairy tale element, which was so important in Walser’s writing, which we overlaid in the film: that Gottfried was the Ogre, the students were the seven dwarfs, etc etc. To this we added the entire fairy tale animal kingdom of deer, and that it was all set in a former perfume factory – musk coming from the deer – that the Institute Benjamenta had moved into and that it had inherited the defunct Deer Museum on the top floor.
As human beings, as artists, was there (or were there) a moment (or moments) when you found yourselves demanding or requesting or proclaiming that you needed something that would allow you to serve either your muse, the art of cinema, or for that matter, anything/anyone else?
No, not in Walser’s demonstrative fashion. But we’re all prepared to!
The Institute’s motto declares: ‘Rules have already thought of everything.’ To what extent, either historically or in contemporary terms, is there truth to this in how the world of man conducts itself?
It’s one of many placards seen on the walls of the Institute but this one so powerfully evokes an implacable dead-end-ness and that it is useless to revolt. So submit!
While I’m sure there are virtues to be found in dominance, it rather seems like an awful lot of work. Submission involves pure innocence (some might say ‘ignorance’) and the exertions of following, of OBEYING, allowing one to drain the exertions of thought and to concentrate on the matter at hand. In this sense, perhaps there’s more potential for a few ‘followers’ (like Jakob) to reverse the power positions as reaction to orders can hypnotize, but just as easily open one’s mind, or at least, open the powers of instinct.
Submission for us – and for a Jakob especially – would not be tolerable if there wasn’t space to breathe with a sense of subversion even if it tests one’s limits, and then the exertion might be so demanding as to make one break down from the negation.
What are the dangers or virtues in this as you see it?
But of course the Institute Benjamenta could easily serve as a wider metaphor, not ONLY as an anti-authoritarian tract but also as a kind of potential spiritual terrain that shapes Jakob’s interior life, and that in all the Institute’s strictures and submissions an immense inner freedom could be located.
Are Jakob’s submissive qualities those that allow him to move more gracefully from reactive to active?
Walser and Jakob pre-exist in that open state already. They merely have to test the boundaries.
German sociologist Max Weber describes a bureaucrat as someone who faithfully, almost blindly, exercises delegated duties in strict accordance with rules that are completely impersonal. This, of course, seems to describe the servants-to-be in the Institute and their ultimate ‘fate’ upon graduation. So, that said, I feel that the universality of Walser’s work and your film is a key element in their place in the world as art – as a reflection and perhaps even a commentary upon mankind.
Only indirectly in so much as we were fascinated, as was Walser, by how one might navigate such a closed and seemingly hopeless and negated realm; that the suppression of freedom makes it possible to experience freedom. We felt we knew and understood that realm quite intuitively.
Beyond Walser’s indelible style, are the aforementioned thematic elements things that have drawn you to him? Were they key elements that infused you with desire to make the film? And if so, to what extent did they drive the film’s story and style?
We chose this novella by Walser because it was like an intimate chamber work and as it was our very first venture into feature films and working with live actors, we wanted to be cautious and not take on something too grand and beyond our scope. We read our first article on Walser written by his translator Christopher Middleton and it was called ’The Picture of Nobody’. Naturally, that appealed instantly to us and we slowly started to devour all his writings – what was available at the time. But whilst first reading Jakob von Gunten we realised at once at just how cinematic it could be. And we also felt very close to the ‘diary’ form so we embarked on writing the script without really knowing if it would ever get financed. We wrote the script with Alain Passes, a writer friend, but we also wrote it visually with great detail, always including the quality of light and the décor.
When writing with such attention to visual detail, to what extent do you think you consciously (or even unconsciously) tie these details into the ‘actions’ of the characters?
We must have had some intuitions how an actor might handle that scene but that was for us the only ‘unknown’ quantum in the equation we were trying to create, but whatever the actor created, it was all bonus because everything else we could pretty much control.
The use of black and white, aside from its inherent aesthetic beauty, seems to enhance a sense of a world where blind servitude is the most logical pre-requisite to unquestioningly follow impersonal rules. At the same time, the medium itself (as I believe, life itself) is replete with ‘colour’ in so far as there are literal shades of white, black AND grey. Why did you see the movie in black and white? Did any of the above have an influence and/or were there other reasons? (Perhaps even practical ones?)
From the very beginning we intuitively knew that the film had to be in black and white, that all the inner rhymes would be found in the classroom blackboard and chalk, in the ethereal dimension that only black and white can give and we asked our cinematographer, Nic Knowland, to exploit the full range of the most intense whites, to the richest of blacks and the most beautiful and mysterious of greys, to shoot with wide open f-stops, and that light was one of the main protagonists and that Lisa knew precisely the hours where and when the sun would journey through the Institute and her rooms.
The idea of light as a protagonist is such an inspiring one. Would you say that the importance of light to the medium of all visual arts – particularly cinema, where the images, the story, the world of the film must be conveyed THROUGH light (whether it be a movie projector or HD monitor) – is something you as filmmakers are keenly, if not always, aware of? It’s been said great filmmakers (and specifically cinematographers) often paint WITH light. How in this context does it inform your work, and specifically, the world of Institute Benjamenta?
Well, since with animation you have to learn ALL the metiers: to build the décors, the puppets, to give them their ‘climates’ and ‘stimmung’ through light, to know the camera and what lenses could give you, to animate the puppets, to learn how to edit, how to do sound – and we’ve always ALWAYS had music first before the film even began. So when we asked Nic Knowland to come on board to be our cinematographer we had a lot of experience about how to light – although very amateurish by comparison. And the element of ‘choreography’ in its widest sense appealed to us not only in terms of literal movement, but because the ballet doesn’t use dialogue but for the most part music only and it tells its stories via gesture and music and décor.
I cannot imagine anyone other than Alice Krige as Lisa Benjamenta. What was the process behind casting her?
Initially we had Charlotte Rampling on board – she was a name and we thought it was a coup to have gotten her for the production. But at the last minute Channel Four refused to insure her because she’d walked off a previous film set. Our lovely casting agent had been pushing Alice all along and suddenly we had to pitch the project to her and she wasn’t initially terribly convinced by the script, saying she didn’t know what she could bring to it. So in a panic, we sent her a snowdrift of faxes explaining what we were after and she said yes and jumped on a plane and arrived on the weekend. The filming started on a Monday for six weeks in an old country house near Hampton Ct on the edge of Richmond Park where deer grazed next to the house.
I am in serious love with her performance. It’s impossible to take one’s eyes off her. In that sense, was this notion of her magnetic qualities ever a consideration in shots that involved her? Did her natural qualities ever force you to block and/or shoot anything to maintain the perspective(s) necessary to the individual dramatic/thematic/artistic beats of the work?
It was the great unknown blessing to have gotten Alice to play Lisa and she was a dream to work and collaborate with, as were of course Mark and the wonderful Gottfried John. She would keep asking for further takes and you could see she was searching and taking her character deeper and deeper. She kept a flow chart in her hotel room and as we shot the film out of sequence she would always consult us to where emotionally she had to be on such and such a scene.
What was Ms Krige’s understanding and appreciation of Walser, the work itself and her character?
It wasn’t necessary for her to have read beyond the script as we talked to her about Walser and Lisa, his real sister, and all that might help her but she also really responded to the décors and the space we created for her, the climates, the quality of light. And she loved working in black and white. Even after the official shooting ended she came freely to our studio to shoot some extra close-ups that we had devised.
In recent days, I’ve imagined some Ruskin-like Ethics of the Dust transcript involving Ms Krige presiding over a ‘tutorial’ involving yourselves and the other cast members.
No, alas nothing like this.
Well, one can only dream, then.
Of course, Alice was never more beautiful than when she was dead.
From the first time I saw Institute Benjamenta and through almost every time I have seen it, I’m reminded of how beautiful death can be on film. The actor, of course, is infused with the quality of life and no matter how great they can be as actors, this natural quality is especially useful in making characters in death look ‘never more beautiful’. The shots of Ms Krige in death are right up there in my personal pantheon of gorgeous screen corpses, ESPECIALLY in Carl Dreyer’s Ordet. In fact, Dreyer is an artist whom I’m pleasantly reminded of when I see Institute Benjamenta. (In fact, I sometimes imagine a Dreyer adaptation of Benjamenta appearing in his canon – probably between Gertrud and his never-made Jesus.) Is he someone you yourselves admire? Might there even be a conscious or unconscious Dreyer influence on your work?
When we were in Copenhagen to do work on the décors for a ballet with Kim Brandstrup, our choreographer on Benjamenta, we visited Carl Dreyer’s grave. He has been one of the most important influences on our work and we have watched and re-watched his films.
One thing I suspect I will never forget, and indeed, think of often, is the young saplings sequence where the men rock back and forth humming, almost chanting, and you favour Lisa in those exquisite shots where Ms Krige evokes both desperation and heartache.
Before the scene was filmed she told us she’d wing it, that she wasn’t sure what would happen but to stay with her. But it was this slow swaying of the students, their backs to her, along with their mounting humming, that of course started to slowly and implacably swamp her appeals, but it is all so dreamlike and strange and troubling, with Jakob helplessly standing off to the side holding pinecones, watching Lisa become undone. But it’s true that by the end of the scene, when Lisa sees Kraus writing the giant zero, you can see that her gaze has seen beyond this life into another one.
From the first time I saw your film in that huge indoor sporting complex (or whatever the hell it was) in Locarno so many years ago, and upon each subsequent viewing, this sequence has moved me to a combination of tears, trembling and physical sensations of tingling and gooseflesh.
Yes, initially this scene was placed much earlier in the script but because of its emotional strength we moved it further back in the film.
The young saplings sequence inspires me with many levels of meaning and emotion, but I will keep them to myself and ask what this sequence means to you, what you wished to achieve with it and how you prepared for it, shot it and rendered it in final form?
The sequence was a premonition of Lisa’s emotionally becoming undone, that she could no longer reach her students, not even her preferred one, Inigo, and that a darker and more disturbing and bleaker finality loomed before her.
Ever the optimist, I suspect we all have a ‘darker and more disturbing and bleaker finality’ looming before us. And speaking of finality, I have one final question for you. Are there things in Benjamenta you’re not completely sold on these many years later or, if given a chance, things you’d do differently (and if so, what they might be)?
No, you couldn’t have really thrown any more money at the production and we didn’t need famous actors. A six-week shoot seemed perfect although how could we have known. We had a very experienced first assistant, Mary Soan. We stayed small and it was beautifully in control and it was a unique and moving experience for us. We actually lived in the top floor of this old abandoned country house during the entire shoot. But there was one scene where I wished we’d been a lot braver, and we’ve talked about it much later with Alice, and that was the scene where she goes upside down and guides Jakob to her. She should have been boldly naked beneath her gown and as Jakob was blindfolded he would have been so disoriented by this unknown region of flesh and pudenda, but we as an audience would have gasped at her erotic boldness.
From the northern most point of the Bruce Peninsula in the Dominion of Canada, I bid you: Bon Cinema!
Greg Klymkiw’s Colonial Report (on cinema) from the Dominion of Canada
Bob Clark, an American director who wisely moved to Canada and became a landed immigrant during the tax shelter period of the 70s and 80s, made some of the most successful and groundbreaking Canadian films. In addition to the Oscar-nominated Tribute and the acclaimed Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and Watson (James Mason) vs. Jack the Ripper thriller Murder by Decree, Clark’s two other Canadian films are notable for kickstarting the teen sex comedy genre (Porky’s) and the modern slasher film (Black Christmas).
Black Christmas (1974) was not only a huge hit at the box-office, but has become renowned for its alternately creepy and jolting scares, its originality in terms of both direction and writing, and the piquant black humour which drives the movie into territory well beyond strict genre parameters. Plus, there’s a perversely indigenous Canadian quality to it which places it in a realm that yields a movie that’s just enough off the beaten track to make it feel wholly prototypical to the genre, but also marks it as a very special example of Canada’s genuinely important place in the creation of contemporary genre cinema.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada has recently honoured Black Christmas with an exclusive, all-new, fully restored Blu-ray and DVD ‘Season’s Grievings’ edition that offers a gorgeous transfer and a Criterion Collection-worthy set of fascinating, amusing and informative added value features which feel very much like an ‘Everything You always Wanted to Know about Black Christmas* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)’ compendium in the spirit of the famed Dr. R. Reuben tome of fleshly love.
I recently had the opportunity to meet with three legendary Canadian cast members together in an Anchor Bay Canada boardroom in the St. Lawrence Market area of downtown Toronto. All three represent Canadian thespian gymnastics at their loftiest, but also had important roles in nailing the utter originality of the movie. Lynne Griffin, a renowned stage actress, kids TV personality and veteran of Canadian cinema was the iconic image of sheer terror on all ads, posters and home video packaging of the picture thanks to her extremely unique role in Black Christmas.
Nick Mancuso, the veteran film and television actor, who first burst onto the scene with his astonishing performance as the victim of a dangerous religious cult in Ticket to Heaven provided the sickening, horrifying and definitely iconic voice of Billy, the foul Yuletide serial killer of Black Christmas who is only heard during his numerous obscene phone calls.
The Holy Spirit of this thespian trinity is none other than Doug McGrath, one of Canada’s most beloved actors, first the star of iconic Canuck classics like Goin’ Down the Road, Wedding in White and The Hard Part Begins, then for many years one of Clint Eastwood’s favourite character actors in such great pictures as Pale Rider and Bronco Billy. In Black Christmas, he is the comic relief (along with Margot Kidder and Marian Waldman). Resembling a cross between Buster Keaton and Don Knotts’ ‘Barney Fife’ in The Andy Griffith Show, McGrath plays John Saxon’s thick-headedly inept desk sergeant, ill equipped to handle the wave of murders, assaults and disappearances plaguing the town in Black Christmas.
Here then is our lovely chat, which, frankly, could have lasted the whole afternoon, but sadly did not.
* * *
Greg Klymkiw: So Lynne, I’m sure this must be one of the more ubiquitous queries you get as an actress, but when your character, the sweet virginal sorority sister Clare Harrison in Black Christmas is forcibly enveloped in a plastic see-through cold-storage bag and suffocated to death by the psychopath Billy, it’s not only a jaw-dropping horror set piece, but one of the most terrifying moments in screen history. I can’t help but think how utterly horrifying it was to perform, even with all of the requisite safety measures in place. That surely couldn’t have been the safest stunt to perform.
Lynne Griffin: Well, we didn’t really have any safety measures, but god bless them, it was a risk worth taking for all the reasons you cited, but I was always front and centre in the posters, ads and every DVD cover.
Nothing more fetching than a sexy young lady with her mouth agape, enshrouded in plastic with a look of sheer terror etched into her face by rigour mortis.
Thank you for that lovely compliment [laughs]. And yes, as ubiquitous as I became on all the advertising material, so too are the discussions I’ve had about that scene. If that becomes my legacy, I’m delighted. Even when I go to horror conventions, I make sure to bring plastic bags with me for photo-ops.
Damn, I wish I’d brought one with me today.
The thought had occurred to me to bring one also. I’m still quite able to demonstrate my prowess under plastic.
I imagine the actual suffocation, with all the movement involved might have been somewhat simpler and safer to garner the required effect, but for the rest of the film, we keep visiting your lifeless body sitting rigidly in that creepy rocking chair in the attic. I suspect those shots must have been a killer, so to speak, to maintain the death grimace.
Even when we were shooting, it helped matters that I was an excellent swimmer and able to hold my breath for long periods of time. However, even if they poked air holes in the plastic to allow for subtle breath intake, there’d still be movement and, worst of all, the condensation would spoil the effectiveness of the shots, so to avoid this, it became a huge challenge. We finally agreed that I’d keep my eyes open and hold my breath completely. As a swimmer, I could hold my breath for the entire length of the pool.
Yeah, so you’re not sucking plastic down your throat.
Doug McGrath: That’d be a sure sign your corpse is trying to breathe.
[Mega-laughs all round. McGrath proves that even without cameras rolling he’s a master of the straight face and deadpan delivery.]
Lynne Griffin: There’s that one take in particular where I’m sitting there lifelessly for what seems like an eternity and when I looked at the new Anchor Bay Canada ‘Season’s Grievings’ edition, it sadly occurred to me that for all these years I neglected to include ‘playing dead’ as a skill on my resume.
[More laughs all round. ‘Special Skills’ – even playing dead – can be the lifeblood (as it were) of any working actor’s resume.]
With Black Christmas, Bob Clark really created a horror film which had a huge impact upon North American genre cinema. Clearly influenced by the Italian gialli – even one of your co-stars John Saxon had appeared in Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much – his was the first picture on colonial soil to present the killer’s POV, and it was such a huge hit that it was the film which inspired the entire slasher genre. One of the biggest differences, though, is that all the American films which followed Black Christmas utilised the creepy, twisted, moralistic story element wherein the ultimate heroine and survivor of the homicidal machinations of the slasher was always the virgin.
Not in Black Christmas.
My own virginal exposure to Black Christmas first-run was in a real movie theatre at a time when Canadian films actually played in movie theatres and sitting there, even at that age, I felt like I was seeing something different. The horror and suspense builds, but with a nice blend of genuine characters and a delightful sense of black humour, so that when your character is dispatched, it was, even then, utterly shocking to have such a nice person be so horribly decimated – and even more jaw-dropping, that Clare is the first person to die. Not to take away from any of the lovely surprises in Mr. Hitchcock’s Psycho, but I suspect the shock of Marion Crane dying so early in the film was slightly, moralistically tempered by those scenes of Janet Leigh lollygagging about in her bra with the shirtless John Gavin and then embezzling all that money. But here, we have this sweet, virginal thing adorned in her modest sweater, her chaste relationship with the nice, young hockey player and her excitement over spending Christmas vacation with her mom and dad and yet, she’s the first kill and one of the most shocking and brutal killings in screen history.
[Sounding like the character of Clare here:] It’s unusual, isn’t it?
What were your thoughts when you first read the screenplay?
I was working steadily at Stratford at the time and the idea of doing a horror film seemed like a nice breath of fresh air. Of course, Bob Clark was wonderful. He was so charming and delightful, he could easily sell you swamp land. He’d also assembled an amazing cast and I loved the idea of working with all of them – especially Olivia Hussey, because I really wanted to pick her brain about working with Franco Zefferelli in Romeo and Juliet.
Well, and I’m sure there might have been some burning queries about Leonard Whiting’s pert, shapely bum?
There is that, I suppose.
And of course, when I first saw the ads with you wrapped in plastic, I have to admit, I initially thought it was Olivia Hussey under that huge Glad baggie.
That was a very common experience. Even now, I’ll see one of those ‘Where are they now?’ write-ups for Olivia and they’re actually talking about me. It’s interesting that when I made many thrillers after Black Christmas, I was often cast as a victim. In [Charles Jarrot’s] The Amateur [with Christopher Plummer and John Savage], I was one of the hostages and the first to be shot in the head.
[Laughs] Lucky me, allright. There are, however, many films where I lived to the last reel.
So, here you are, doing some of the greatest theatre in the world at Stratford, then as a nice change of pace, you’re acting in one of the most notorious horror films of its day and subsequently all time, you’re playing a virgin, you get knocked off horrifically and yet, one of my strongest memories of you as an actress is when you hosted this innocent CBC-TV after-school daily programme which was a kind of pre-teen Romper Room.
[Laughs] Yes, it was called Drop-in and I did it for five years and we did it live-to-air. So, at 4.30pm every afternoon we did this magazine-style show with comedy sketches and interviews.
Okay, so I’m not going crazy.
Not at all, that was me.
Nick Mancuso: And what healthy young lad at the time, didn’t have a crush on you?
Tell me about it.
Lynne Griffin: Well, and this virginal quality Bob looked for in Black Christmas makes so much sense. To host those shows, you needed this sense of innocence, but it was also one which all the young fellas lusted after.
The Hayley Mills effect.
Oh, of course. Even now, when I still do the horror conventions, some forty years after, even these men, young and old, come up and they are, dare I say it, lust-filled and talk to me like I’m still this young, hot chick, and it’s so flattering. But there is a lot to be said for this virginal quality. I played the virginal young thing so often, even though, I wasn’t. Well, I was, of course, innocent.
I can accept that. [Then to Nick Mancuso] You’ve made so many great pictures, Nick, and that’s ultimately a legacy worth accepting, but the fact remains that, as a young man, you attached yourself to the off-camera role of Billy who I think is still one of the – no, the creepiest slasher serial killers in the horror genre.
Nick Mancuso: You know, I’ve acted in over 250 films and TV series, three of my pictures are with the National Board of Review in Washington, and the role I’m best remembered for is the voice of Billy in Black Christmas.
[laughs] I don’t know, Nick, Ticket to Heaven is the first major feature film to focus on the evils of religious cults and you’re damn brilliant as the young guy who’s sucked into the miasma of exploitation and then fucking de-programmed. It’s harrowing, memorable and probably going to be your most enduring legacy.
Well thank you. You have to realise that when I did Black Christmas, I was nineteen-years-old when Bob Clark auditioned me and had me improvise a bunch of grotesque sounds for the obscene telephone calls. He hired me instantly and
Gee whiz, tantalising Bob Clark so zealously in an audition to play a sicko is no slouch. Really, bud. In fact, that’s no mean feat.
I knew I had to create this strange voice, so I stood on my head to compress my thorax. And you know, I wasn’t the only voice in the mix; Bob Clark contributed growls and gurgles, plus on one occasion, an actress who was not credited, a stage actress whose name has I’ve forgotten, did some of the higher-pitched screams.
There are a number of sources which state that you appeared on camera as Billy.
No. Never. There is, however, one curious factotum. The producers couldn’t afford to bring Keir Dullea back to Canada to do a few lines of ADR [Additional Dialogue Recording], so during the climactic scenes when Keir goes into the basement to find Olivia, I did his voice.
It’s great that Bob Clark never felt the need to resurrect Billy, as so many of the American slasher films to follow did, and to keep the killer’s identity ambiguous.
It’s an original film on so many levels, but as you touched on earlier, the killer’s POV was already a staple of European thrillers like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom from Britain – and, of course, everyone was in on it; the French, the Germans and especially the Italians.
Yes, Argento and Bava in particular.
For sure. The Italian influence on Black Christmas and horror films to follow was immense. Bob was a huge cinephile and Argento and all those other guys would have added to Bob’s bag of tricks.
Though it’s safe to say that Bob popularised and made the killer POV all his own in North American cinema.
I can’t take that away from him, but [with tongue in cheek] once again, the Italians are the instigating factor in higher culture.
[Laughing] Well, you’re certainly proof positive of that. In fact, speaking of Italians, your surname is identical to that of the legendary Frank Mancuso, CEO of Paramount and MGM, but weirdly I’ve seen you mixed up on less reliable online sources as Frank and vice-versa.
There’s lots of strange stuff like that, especially after I’d wrapped on the Stingray series, I was hired to star as Rudy Giuliani in a series focusing on his pre-Mayoral days as New York’s crime-busting D.A. and was paid a ridiculous amount of money for a show that eventually didn’t even go to pilot. While waiting for that to not happen, Mancuso F.B.I went into production with Robert Loggia as ‘Nick Mancuso’. I called Loggia up and he said in his trademark gravelly voice, ‘Yeah, hey kid, I know. I love the name and thought it might do you some good.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, right asshole!’ Then the producer of the series said he’d go through all the scripts and change the name from Nick to Nico. I said, ‘That is my name!’ [Nick’s full name is Nicodemo Antonio Massimo Mancuso – hence ‘Nico’, hence ‘Nick’.] The asshole then told me to get a good lawyer. Ah man, the weird things that happened because of my name. There was a spa in L.A. I occasionally went to and I was very good friends with Frank Mancuso who went there also, but years later, I got a call from the spa wanting to confirm my booking for thirty people! And not just a mere booking. They wanted to confirm that I’d paid for thirty people in full. Thirty people! It turned out to be from Frank’s son, Frank Mancuso Jr. This Mancuso link is so weird. There’s apparently a new show with a detective called Nick Mancuso. So let them, I say. And screw them!
Here you are though, an actor known primarily as the voice of a foul-mouthed serial killer, when you have indeed been in a whole whack of films, and some of them like Ticket to Heaven and Maria Chapdelaine are not just classics of Canadian cinema, but great pictures – period!
None of them made money! Black Christmas DID and DOES, to this day, make money. Of course, we get nothing in residuals for it. [Lynne Griffin and Doug McGrath chime in with full concurrence.] But you know, Black Christmas is one of those films that lives well beyond that sort of thing and is indeed a very special picture for all of us. Aside from Bob Clark’s masterful direction, a terrific cast, a well structured story and screenplay [written by Canadian A. Roy Moore], it’s a film that really deals with the deep unconscious, aloneness, sexual lust and isolation experienced by so many young people. To this day, it’s still that way. There’s also the clear linkage between sex and violence. [In stuffy Brit sotto voce] Not to get too philosophical about it, dear boy, but as Aristotle said, the function and purpose of drama is catharsis… [and back to normal Mancuso timbre] Purgation! And of what? Pity, or compassion and terror. Terror is the frozen fear that lives in the deep unconscious of the community and the young characters in Black Christmas get to purge it on the screen. Of course, as one gets older, the linkage between fear and sex, or rather the fear of sex is abated by the sure-fire cure of marriage.
[Huge laughs all round.]
Well you know, Doug, it’s very cool to speak with you about your participation in Black Christmas, which occurred several years after the first time – as a kid – that I encountered you on screen in Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road. You know, when most Canadian movies actually played in real movie theatres.
Doug McGrath: At one time. A long time ago.
And you know, I pulled the movie pages from the newspaper archives from my hometown – Winnipeg! The ads were huge and the movie actually played for four weeks in one of the biggest movie theatres in my sleepy old prairie winter city. So here I am, ten or eleven-years-old, and I saw Shebib’s picture on the opening weekend. In fact, I didn’t even initially connect the dots that I was about to see a Canadian movie. I just went to see as many movies as I could. But as the picture unspooled, I became completely enraptured in the fact that something seemed so familiar in ways I’d never experienced at the movies before. It was Canadian and not only did I love the movie, but the feeling of experiencing something so Canadian. This was something I don’t think I’ll ever forget and it instilled in me, even back then, the importance of seeing movies that were Canadian. Of course, as a kid, I saw you in Wedding in White and The Hard Part Begins and a few years later, still a kid, I saw Black Christmas first-run. Of course, I noticed your name in the credits, along with a bunch of other Canadians and I was plenty excited. I loved movies, especially horror movies, and here I was about to see a Canadian horror movie. You, however, totally blew me away in that – at the time and even now – because amidst the carnage and chaos you’re standing there like some bizarre cross between Buster Keaton and Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show, and I pretty much peed myself laughing. I think what’s so great about your performance is your utterly straight face as this complete incompetent cop.
Yeah, I kind of fell into that performance because the writing is so strong.
How the hell did you keep a straight face when Margot Kidder gives you her telephone number with the new phone exchange ‘Fellatio’ and then having John Saxon and the other cop cracking up when they discover that you’ve been had?
[Chuckles] You know, that’s maybe a kind of good question. I was feeling a kind of frustration.
You? Or the cop’s frustration?
Well, both I think, and as I felt that double-edge frustration, I responded to the character as written and said to myself, ‘Okay, let’s go with this.’ And in a strange way, the character was sort of close to myself, so I also chose to play it like myself. It’s funny, I wasn’t prepared for it and yet, the writing is so good I realised, once on the set with Margot and John Saxon, that I needed to go with the frustration. Sergeant Nash really wants to be a good cop, but he keeps having stuff thrown at him that he’s not equipped to handle. And it’s so funny that [the arc of] the character builds to that point when he’s on the phone with John Saxon who tells him ‘not to fuck things up’ and maybe, for the first time, he realises he truly has. Yes, he is the comedy relief, but when I discovered that, I also knew that playing it straight was the right thing to do. It helped that Bob seldom said anything. He obviously was getting what he wanted and that’s a great feeling for an actor. And then there’s Margot Kidder, someone I had the deepest respect for. She’s spelling out the word ‘Fellatio’ and part of me is reacting to Margot doing that and another part of me is reacting to it like I would react and, of course, as the Sergeant – as written – would react.
Nick Mancuso: Bob was always such a generous director. He’d always give you the space you needed to nail it just perfectly.
Doug McGrath: He was so great. Keep in mind, I’d just come off doing one heavy realistic film after another like Goin’ Down the Road and The Hard Part Begins…
And lest we forget, the unrelentingly real and almost unbearably depressing Wedding in White where Carol Kane is forced into a shotgun marriage to an old man by her father Donald Pleasance after she’s been raped and impregnated by your character.
Oh gosh, yes. So here I am in ultra-realistic mode and I’m playing a role that’s supposed to be the comic relief in a scary horror film. I was so grateful to Bob that he let me find the realistic side to the bumbling desk sergeant. Actually, I worked with him soon after Black Christmas on Porky’s. That’s where Bob continued to use his faith in both, the shot and the actors within it, and also how he instinctively would just hold the shot. He’d hold and hold and never break up the natural rhythm of the scene.
[If you’ve seen Porky’s, you’ll know exactly the points in the film where McGrath has you rolling in the aisles – especially during some very long shots. If you haven’t seen it, just do so. McGrath delivers one of the great comedy performances from the latter chunk of the last century, as does his Canadian co-star Kim Cattrall.]
And in Black Christmas there’s the scene where you’re trying to explain the Fellatio telephone exchange to John Saxon, this incredibly stalwart figure who, as part of his character, is supposed to be holding back his laughter and trying to keep a straight face while a cop in the background is howling with laughter as the scene plays out. And witnessing your character’s utter straight-faced incredulity that there’s something wrong with a phone exchange called ‘Fellatio’, I can’t help thinking how hard it must have been for Saxon to stay in character and not cough up huge guffaws.
[With an ever-so slight touch of puckishness] Well, that may be so. Believe me, I kept my eyes on John for the whole scene.
* * *
Black Christmas is available in the all-new ‘Season’s Grievings’ Blu-ray/DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada Ltd. If you’re in the Dominion of Canada, it’s available everywhere. If you’re a foreigner, you’ll need to order it as an import from Amazon. It’s well worth it.
If you live in Toronto, you’re going to be blessed with a screening of an archival 35mm print at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) Bell Lightbox with a live appearance from Keir Dullea, and then again at The Royal Theatre in Toronto’s Little Italy featuring live appearances by Lynne Griffin and Nick Mancuso. At this latter screening, packaging artist Ghoulish Gary Pullin will be unleashing his ‘Season’s Grievings’ variant edition of the poster art. This gorgeous silk-screened poster, featuring metallic links, is limited to only 80 copies.
You can read Greg Klymkiw’s review of Black Christmas on his website The Film Corner.
Do what all stalwart Canucks in the colonies do – celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus with Black Christmas.
Release date: 5 June 2015 (London), 12 June 2015(nationwide UK)
DVD release date: 24 August 2015
Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye
Director: John Boorman
Writer: John Boorman
Cast: Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, Vanessa Kirby, Richard E. Grant, David Thewlis
Greg Klymkiw’s Colonial Report (on cinema) from the Dominion of Canada
In 1987 John Boorman (Deliverance, Point Blank) gave us the sweet, funny and happily (as well as sadly) nostalgic Hope and Glory, the autobiographical journey of Bill Rohan, a young lad growing up in London during the Blitz and his subsequent adventures when moved out to the country for safety. One of the strangest and most delightful aspects of Boorman’s picture was how it focused on a boy and his chums discovering that their bombed-out city had been transformed into one big playground. Tempering this were the more sobering realities of life, love, family and yes, even the realities of war, seen through a child’s eyes.
It’s now 25 years later that the 82-year-old Boorman delivers a sequel, Queen and Country. Bill (Callum Turner) is now a young man and he’s been called up for two years of mandatory military service to dear old Blighty. Much to the chagrin of the regiment’s commanding officer (Richard E. Grant), Bill forms a veritable Dynamic Duo with his cheeky, irreverent chum Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones), and the lads wreak considerable havoc in the barracks, from basic training through to the end of their short military careers.
The lads’ chief nemesis is the humourless, mean-spirited, borderline psychotic Sgt. Major Bradley (David Thewlis), who proves to be the bane of their existence. But the boys turn those tables quite handily and indeed become the even bigger bane of Bradley’s existence – pilfering the beloved regiment clock, ignoring protocol during typing lessons (YES! Typing lessons!) and eventually using ‘the book’ to gain an upper hand over their superiors.
The humour and events are mostly of the gentle and good-natured variety, from Bill courting Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton), a beautiful icequeen with a dark secret, to Percy wooing Dawn (Vanessa Kirby), Bill’s sexy sister, during a happy leave in the country, where the entire Rohan family joins in the thrill of unboxing a television set, madly attempting to get the roof-antenna reception just right and gathering round the flickering, monochrome cathode-ray images that capture the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth.
There is darkness to Boorman’s tale, however, and though our characters are far away from the explosive Hope and Glory rubble of the Blitz, the very real and scary prospect of being called up for active duty in Korea looms large. The horror of war also creeps into the character of Bradley, when eventually the shenanigans perpetrated upon him reveal why his mask might not be as firmly affixed as everyone thinks.
The final third of the film is imbued with one emotional wallop after another, including a court martial, harrowing trips to a veterans’ hospital, military prison and finally a very sweet and deeply moving tribute to both love and cinema.
Queen and Country is a lovely, elegiac capper to the long, illustrious career of a grand old man of the movies. That said, I desperately hope Mr Boorman has it in him to produce one final installment in the early life of Bill Rohan. We’ve been treated to the Blitz and post-war England, and I do think an excursion into the Swinging 60s is in order.
And now, my brief, but lovely, conversation with this great man whose lifetime of films have delivered so much to the art of cinema.
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Greg Klymkiw: I was tremendously moved by Queen and Country, and not only because it continues the adventures of Bill Rohan from Hope and Glory, a film that was very special to me when it was first released. It has, in fact, continued to resonate within me as a film that fueled memories of my own childhood, at a time that was 20+ years after the events of the film. As a child growing up in Canada, which, in the early 60s, was still very much the Dominion of Canada, I recalled feeling a kinship with the Queen and England, but also World War II, which Canada participated in, both as its own entity, and also as a subject of the Crown. The war did not, at least in early childhood, seem that far away. As a young man in my early 20s, Hope and Glory plunged me back to the early 60s, rekindling the odd feelings of how war, as a kid, seemed, well, fun. But, interestingly, because the new film focuses upon Bill at an age I myself was when I first saw Hope and Glory, I was able to respond this time on a similarly strangely nostalgic level. Seeing Bill’s character in Queen and Country, not only did I relate to his sense of fun and irreverence, but, most importantly, his questioning of authority during the 1950s was not unlike my own experience as a young man during the 1980s. Authority? Conformity? Be damned, will you! It’s strange how everything old becomes new again. Post-war must have been a huge time of change, as I feel now about the 1980s, what with the era of Reagan and Thatcher.
John Boorman: Well thank you. That makes me very happy to hear when people respond so positively and personally to the film.
I respond that way not just to Queen and Country, but all of your films. From Having a Wild Weekend onwards, I feel like I’ve grown up from childhood to middle age with all of your work.
That’s so kind of you to say. I also appreciate your thoughts regarding the periods in which both of the Bill Rohan films are set. With Queen and Country, it’s set during a time of great change. After two world wars, England was completely broke, so heavily bombed that massive reconstruction needed to take place. Churchill was tossed out and the Labour Party came into power. It was a very reforming government.
Well, of course, my only experience with the postwar period comes from the movies – mostly American cinema for me, mind you. Both film noir and the strangely expressionistic melodramas of Douglas Sirk were fraught with a weird amalgam of new beginnings and ennui, though the new beginnings seemed loaded with compromise, conformity and authority.
That’s so true, and it’s fascinating how all art reflects history, all the more so with cinema.
Come to think of it, though, British cinema had its own reaction to the period, what with the Ealing comedies and their emphasis upon industry, labour relations, etc.; those weird, low-budget British noir-knock-offs that Hammer was doing, and, a bit later on, the kitchen-sink angry-young-man work. What precisely were the changes and reforms in England that populate Bill Rohan’s world in Queen and Country?
It was a time of great upheaval. These were, after all, the beginnings of the National Health Service and, very importantly, the 1947 Education Act, which positively transformed the youngest of that generation in ways that yielded genuine personal exploration. Up until that time it was grammar school or being shunted into a trade, but now, every child was taught music, literature beyond mere grammar and, of course, art. When you pitch all that forward, those kids in the postwar period who started to learn so many new things, as well as the emphasis on personal expression, those same kids in the 60s became The Beatles.
Ah yes, and in Queen and Country we find young Bill in the middle, burrowed deeply between the early reforms and, uh, The Beatles. He’s got the benefits of reform, but is smack up against authority, just before things explode for his generation.
The monarchy played an odd role in Canada during the early 60s and certainly, to this day, we are still, at least on paper, subjects of the Queen. My Lord, we still have pockets of die-hard monarchists occasionally rearing their heads in the strangest enclaves here and there across our Dominion.
Yes, I’ve never understood how or why certain progressive countries within the former Commonwealth, like Canada and Australia, held on to the traditions of the monarchy, if only in name only.
I’ve always felt like the monarchy became an especially important thing for the middle class in England. Certainly Queen and Country places a fair degree of emphasis upon the backdrop of royalty. There is, of course, the whole gentle set-piece revolving around the king’s death and Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.
Oh yes, the scene where the family is watching the coronation certainly captures the generational differences. Though Bill’s father is a loyalist, Grandpa pooh-poohs the whole thing and Bill is somewhat indifferent, save for feeling that there’s no real context for the monarchy in the modern world.
I loved the scene where the whole family rallies together to set up the new television and the complex machinations of getting the antenna just right to receive the best reception.
People responded emotionally to a young queen, though most of the younger people at the time were opposed to the aristocracy and wanted it all to be swept away.
And yet, the monarchy survives.
It’s only survived because Elizabeth has been on the throne for 63 years and through sheer longevity has kept the whole thing afloat. There’s no place for it in the modern world. The objections of those earlier generations probably didn’t go far enough. We should have gotten rid of the aristocracy.
Privilege continues, as does the aristocracy. We’ve never been able to make it disappear. As for class, money has taken over from class.
The character in Queen and Country who fascinated me was Bradley, the antagonistic force played by David Thewlis. He’s a stiff-upper-lip, strict rule of the law, by-the-book military man, and though he refuses to buckle under, I kept sensing a considerable degree of humanity in him – so much so that I often pined for even just a moment when his shell might crack and allow him to connect with Bill’s character.
Bradley is based on a real-life person who was very much like that. David is a remarkable actor. Given the autobiographical nature of the film, I was still able to maintain a certain degree of objectivity and quite successfully separate myself from the events and characters I was shooting. In the case of Bradley, though, David managed to reproduce this person he himself had never met, so that every single time he came on set I got a frisson of fear from this actor, this beautiful man who is normally one of the sweetest, kindest and gentlest of men. What David accomplished seems to go beyond acting.
Of course I suspect my need to experience a shell cracking in Bradley to allow him even a solitary moment to acknowledge Bill is rooted in my own occasional desire to give way to clichéd and/or sentimental elements of storytelling, but as frightening as Bradley is, this tiny part of me was almost pleading with him, ‘Please, crack, just a bit. Let in some sunshine, please!’
[Laughing] I understand completely. That’s David Thewlis, though. When David is, for example, looking at the flag after the king has died, waiting for it to go half-mast, this is on the heels of feeling like his whole cosmos is threatened. One can understand this and the reality of it is palpable. Ah, David’s such a magnificent actor and he achieves a high degree of reality with this role.
Certainly so many of your films pulsate with a reality that seems to send us into the kind of thrilling places only movies can take us – unless of course we actually experience them for ourselves. I find the almost ‘documentary’ approach to Deliverance – real people, in real canoes on real rushing rapids – something that I can’t shake. The sense of reality Thewlis brings to his role is surely different from that, isn’t it?
Both are recreations of reality. Yes, they’re different, but it’s still achieving a reality for your audience. However, plunging into that powerful river with a skeleton crew and the reality of filming real actors on those dangerous rapids in Deliverance still doesn’t have the same effect upon me as delving into my own personal memories and putting those on film.
And your previous thoughts about maintaining objectivity in recreating dramatic renderings of your life in Queen and Country?
Maintaining objectivity is one thing and very important in presenting a dramatic work, but there’s the very reality of what one feels as a director, on set, a reality, a personal reality, that you must work hard at so it is not affecting the final outcome of what you put on film – trying to maintain balance at all times so that the drama does indeed work as such.
Other than Thewlis, was there anything else in Queen and Country that challenged this objectivity as a filmmaker?
The scene with my ‘mother’ waving to her lover from the affair she had in Hope and Glory was the only other time in the process of making Queen and Country that I was not able to maintain complete objectivity. In life and as portrayed in both films, my mother’s affair devastated me as a child, and even now those feelings of deep sadness are with me. Having to recreate that simple moment, that simple connection between the mother and her long-ago lover with a gesture as simple as a wave, was tremendously affecting to me on a personal level.
I can’t help but think, then, that all of your best work is infused with you personally. Aside from the incredible skill and craftsmanship you bring to bear, there must also be elements of who you are that affect the final outcome, yes?
I do think it occasionally manifests itself in the kinds of films I’m compelled to make, the stories I feel the need to tell. My mother’s love affair with my father’s best friend had an enormous impact upon me as a child and that certainly carries over into some of my films. Point Blank, on one level, is a brutal crime film, but on the level of character it’s driven by a similar love triangle that’s haunted me for so much of my life. Excalibur is derived from the most well-known love triangle in the narrative of Britain’s royalty, that of King Arthur, Guinevere and Sir Lancelot. Indeed, these things in one’s own life creep in, you’re not always even aware of them as you’re ultimately in the business of creating works of imagination.
Well, Mr Boorman, I’d certainly be interested in knowing what elements of your life and indeed, your innermost soul, were roiling about within you when you chose to make Zardoz.
[Laughs heartily] Oh, indeed. We don’t want to go there.
I love that movie. For the two or so weeks it played first-run in my old hometown, I obsessively sat through multiple screenings. Lord knows, for my own sake, in conjuring what manner of psychoses roiled within me as a teenager, it is a place I certainly don’t want to go to either.
Fox brought me to Los Angeles recently and I actually supervised the colour restoration for a major home-entertainment release. I queried the Fox people on why they were going to this trouble and expense. They informed me that Zardoz has a lot of admirers and considerable interest. So here we are with a film that went from being a failure to a classic without passing through success.
Queen and Country ends with the early beginnings of Bill as a filmmaker. The final shot is both breathtaking and deeply moving.
I’m glad you responded emotionally to it. The camera stopping is my way of saying that my career as a filmmaker has stopped.
Queen and Country was released in Canada on 27 March 2015 by Search Engine Films, following it’s US release by BBC Worldwide North America.
Surely not in the 50s?
[Laughs] I am, at present, 82 years old.
Well, I for one, urge you to make one more movie about Bill.
Thank you so much. We’ll see what we can do about that.
Greg Klymkiw’s Colonial Report (on cinema) from the Dominion of Canada
The Dominion of Canada is one massive cesspool of alternately creepy and majestic wilderness. In one isolated corner of the colonies, evil permeates the very soil upon which the foundations of Canada are built.
It is in this seemingly innocuous burgh where we find an all-night disc jockey trapped in an isolated, rural radio station while a virus rages outdoors, sending its victims into states of madness, violence and almost superhuman strength.
Not too far away is the nefarious local factory, providing most of the community’s livelihood, but spilling its foul industrial waste into its faulty septic system, which unloads into the watershed, whereupon a brave septic man plunges into the bowels of the system and gradually turns into a hideously deformed monster, half man, half shit.
There is, of course, a multitude of decrepit graveyards in the burgh, and one unlucky crypt keeper becomes an unlikely hero against a network of evil that leads to the very maw of Hell.
And then, there are the alien visitations.
Ejecta is available in North America and Canada on DVD + Blu-ray (A/1) via Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada, IFC Midnight (USA) and Raven Banner Entertainment (World Sales). It is also available in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray (B/2), released by Signature Entertainment earlier this year. Pontypool is available on DVD (Region 1 or 2), released in 2010.
These four respective tales of horror, Pontypool, Septic Man, Hellmouth and Ejecta, all spring from the diseased brain of one of Canada’s most celebrated novelists and screenwriters. The first film was directed by Canada’s King of Rock ‘n’ Road movies, Bruce (Roadkill, Highway 61, Hard Core Logo) McDonald. The three other films were spawned by Foresight Features, an independent south-western Ontario production company headed by Jesse T. Cook, John Geddes and Matthew Wiele, three 30-year-old gents who love horror movies as much, if not more, than life itself.
They have an unholy alliance as filmmakers with the aforementioned author.
Tony Burgess lives in Stayner, Ontario. It’s just to the south of where the mighty Bruce Peninsula begins. Yes, The Bruce is the very pioneer territory I do my writing from. Stayner itself is situated quite conveniently next door to Collingwood, Ontario, home and production headquarters of Foresight Features.
Mr Burgess has agreed to a few pulls from a jug of local shine and to chat with me about the science-fiction horror thriller Ejecta.
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Greg Klymkiw: One of the many reasons Ejecta resonates with me, especially in terms of the writing – character, dialogue in particular – is that it comes from a place that FEELS legit. Sure, everyone is fascinated with the notion of other worlds, aliens, etc… God knows, even as a kid, the 50s-60s science fiction I watched and/or read fuelled me, as did the nutcase Erich von Daniken. But during the past 15 years or so, I became hooked on the Art Bell/George Noory ‘Coast-to-Coast A.M.’ radio program, and via that unhealthy obsession, I became quite an avid reader of the Graham Hancock books, especially his Fingerprints of the Gods and The Mars Mystery tomes about pyramids on Mars and how humans come from Martians. And, Jesus, I’ve even read a whack of stuff from Zecharia Sitchin, that nutcase who’s written a zillion books about ancient races of aliens on Earth who seeded all of humanity with their interplanetary love juices. I’ve even read scholarly works like Life beyond Earth: The Search for Habitable Worlds in the Universe by Athena Coustenis and Therese Encrenaz who are astro-biologists. Like, really, I love there’s actually a legit scientific field dealing with extraterrestrial life. And, of course, I’m crazy about the beautifully written books by physicist Michio Kaku, who makes my worst subject in high school completely understandable, albeit 35 years after the fact. In book after book Kaku links physics to stuff like parallel universe theory, the shitload of dimensions that exist but that we can’t even begin to comprehend, and all sorts of other neat factoids pointing to life outside of our own measly planet. So given all that, Ejecta feels very real and, as such, is really fucking scary.
Tony Burgess: Well, generally I’d say that working in genre film and novels, the first fascination on any given project is always some conceptual novelty… but once you start batting away at it, you realise that it all has to be happening to someone in a way you/they are compelled to believe in. And that can be done no matter how stretched the reality is. I call it the toilet rule: is it is more riveting to be invisible in a bathroom watching someone wash their face than it is to listen to the Mercury Theatre radio play of War of the Worlds? So everything I do has to have a scene like that – where you’re with someone and nothing is happening – and if it’s not mesmerising somehow, then nothing is. For example, an owl in the attic that frightens a babysitter for two hours can work. So can time-travelling Sasquatch robots. Just hang out in the bathroom for a while to see if you’re getting the job done.
What fuelled your need to write Ejecta?
Well, in this case many of the story elements were brought to me. Initially co-director Matt Wiele approached me with an eye to making a found-footage alien feature. We then did what’s become a ritual between me and Foresight Features. We met at dawn, hammered a few pots of coffee back and then drove a few story pylons into the ground. Around 4pm or so, when were fairly sure we could trust ’em to be sturdy, we pulled out the whiskey – we affectionately called it ‘pull’ – and then we drank our way through the finer points of the story until the wee hours. It’s an excellent way of building a stable structure, then decorating it madly.
Gotta love those frilly dollops of icing on the cake, eh? Those delectables you leave for last.
Ah, but alas, as Alex in A Clockwork Orange says, ‘we then got to the long and weepy part of our story’. We realized once we put everything that I’d written into the can, not enough footage had been shot. We didn’t have anything resembling a feature length. So we had meetings, fights, meetings, fights, pull, meetings, fights, suicide watch, pull, more meetings, more fights, more pull etc., until we came up with the wrap-around story.
Uh, the rest of the movie, eh?
It ended up being a hell of a ride. And you know, the film is very close to my heart.
What I wanted was to dramatically explore the idea of aliens meeting inside a human mind, that the brain of an individual is really just another room in a building for them. I also liked the feel of a single night in a single place that starts to feel broken up, and perilous. There was a trick I was trying too, which became necessary in part because it’s a film swallowed by a film, and that is the notion of NOW not EVER being verifiable. The timeline is sort of like a Moebius comic… ending on the moment it started, but if you parse its linearity it has to be ending LATER.
Why do YOU think the aliens like the room of William Cassidy’s mind? I like that they DO like it, but I must admit that while watching the movie, I also like that I’m not always sure WHY they like it. It’s only in retrospect that I can figure out why, or at least, figure out ‘why’ in terms of the things you’ve provided in the script with respect to his character. Still, this inquiring mind needs to know. Why do YOU think the aliens like his ‘room’?
It’s one of those things that really is just suggested and not verified by the film, which, I agree, is preferable. Is it his location? Is it a feature of his personality? His reclusiveness? Hmm, actually, I’d kinda rather hear your answer than mine.
Well, I’d get a kick out of having some tea and crumpets in Julian Richings’s mind.
I love it that Julian’s been in every Foresight Features movie I’ve written to date.
Goddam, he is a great actor, a super crazy-ass fucker.
It never hurts having Julian Richings howling out from the derailed train [laughs, almost demonically]. It was sort of cubist in a way… a broken lens that allowed timelines and POVS to scramble the present image. It rhymes with the way thought takes on the characteristic of a place. The mind is a great place to house beings that can choose to ignore their surroundings. I can also put it this way: HOW the film was made resembles what is IN the film. One film has no idea that it’s in the other film, and that’s also how the central struggle is constructed. The aliens inside Julian’s character have little understanding of who or what he is. He’s a room. His mind is a room that they like, for whatever reason, finally.
Were the various POVs employed directly linked to infusing the movie with the creepy-crawly sense of reality which pervades the piece?
Oh yes, for sure. And you know, it was such great fun to work with two directors [Wiele and Chad Archibald], because it forced me to think about two incommensurate directorial styles of storytelling in the same story – the film within the film, or rather the film enveloping the film, the wrap-around, which is the real-time aspect of the story. That it works is certainly the willingness of everyone to entertain big engineering feats and leaps of faith.
Have you always been ‘obsessed’ with alien encounters in the ‘normal’ way many people are, or have you ever, or continue to be, ‘unhealthily’ obsessed with aliens?
To tell you the truth, I am a stone-cold sceptic: I don’t believe in ghosts, aliens, God, reincarnation… anything. I just see all those things, at least in the way they’re talked about, as being too important to the person talking. Oddly, I live in a ‘haunted house’ and hear voices, footsteps, etc. almost daily and I still point a finger of blame at my house rather than in the direction of any paranormal shenanigans. I do, however, believe in some very peculiar sensations I have from time to time that suggest massive differences between what is is and what we think is.
I used to experience hearing voices on the old Windfields estate where Uncle Normie Jewison has his film school, the Canadian Film Centre. When I used to work there alone at odd hours, I could never hear precisely what was being said, but I could tell the sex, the rough age-range and the emotional state of the voices. In your house, can you make out any words in the voices you hear? Or rather, WHAT do you hear?
I hear very natural snippets of conversation. I can’t make out what is said and my impression is that I am not expected to. I also hear, all the time, footsteps upstairs and furniture move. I would say I hear something every day. I have even yelled ‘Quiet!’ without ever compromising my scepticism.
Have you read any of the decent non-fiction on the subject of other worlds, parallel universe, etc.?
I did go through a period, yes, of reading all that. My wife and children are avid believers, so I get exposed to lots of alien hunter-type stuff. I can freak myself out easily but I think that’s explained to a willing suspension of disbelief. I am a classic want-to-believe type so I have all the time in the world for those that do.
Living in Winnipeg for so many decades and now in the middle of fucking nowhere on the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula, I am always looking at the sky. Do YOU also look to the skies where you live in Stayner?
Well, yes, of course. A friend of mine once claimed to have seen something in the sky up here. For years he thought that if he submerged his head in a bathtub those beings would communicate with him [laughs]. Sort of ‘Close Encounters of The Drownsman’. Not a bad idea… [The Drownsman is a recent Canadian horror thriller about a Freddy/Jason-type who drags cute, young babes into water and drowns them.]
It seems Ejecta adheres to the J. Allen Hynek triple-header of close encounters. How conscious were you of injecting it into the screenplay?
Not very, except that those classifications are now part of how we all imagine an encounter. The idea of contact. This is the threshold all faiths enshrined. The trail that leads to the thing. The indexical sign. The holy relic and the spectral photobomb. I have stood at the bottom of the stairs and yelled `Shut up!’ but even that is too soft to be contact.
Am I just being too egg-headed about this?
[Laughs] Yeah, totally.
Forgive the yellow viscous oospore of my line of questioning. Does Ejecta simply come from a cool idea that morphed into what it became?
Well, yes of course, but I do believe that the process of constructing a story attracts other kinds of stories, pulls at shadow elements, sneaky resonances, that if you tune things right, will reveal themselves. Is it about something? I can only answer that as a member of the audience.
Do you write for yourself? Are YOU the audience?
Oh, I think both. There are elements, especially things I don’t want to fully understand, that I create as a member of the audience, and things for myself, which are illegible, half-lit ideas.
Did the style of cinematic storytelling employed have more to do with exigencies of low-budget production or is it more deeply linked to my aforementioned thoughts on creating a sense of reality?
Well, the two don’t cancel each other out. It’s so very hard, especially with film, to know exactly what you are making. You prep things and talk about things then you push it all in front of a light for a few moments. What is it? If you want it to feel that it is something, that it’s a good idea, then it always helps to have people who can think on their toes, turn on a dime and do it with immediate conviction. This really was a great team to work with.
I’ve been impressed and obsessed with the Foresight Features guys since they started making movies. Here they are in Collingwood, Ontario, all pals, making cool shit in the middle of nowhere. It really reminds me of other pockets of regional, low-budget waves like Romero, Tony Buba and company in Pittsburgh, and certainly all the Winnipeg wackos like myself, Maddin and Paizs, plus, of course the Astron-6 nut bars. You clearly love working with these guys. To what extent is the region of Collingwood/Stayner an influence upon what you write and what those guys make?
These guys are my brothers now. When I had a heart attack a few months ago, I got sprung three days after the surgery and it was THEM, all three of ’em, who drove down to the hospital in Newmarket to get me home. So those relationships now go beyond creative partnerships. But yeah, how we work, where we work, it often reminds me of those eccentric bands of characters who spring up locally and do shit the way they want to. I think of John Waters and his Dreamland gang too. And yes, being here, doing it all here changes everything. It marks everything. It’s in my books too. It was certainly a part of Pontypool. The names, the people, the streets, the buildings; you make shit in your backyard.
Was there a piece of writing or movie that was some kind of epiphany for you in terms of pursuing writing and the kind of stuff you write?
When I was a teenager I thought I was insane, so I sought out things I could read that would help me cultivate the insanity rather than fear it. You know, all the usual stuff a kid might read: Alfred Jarry, Jean Genet, Isidore Ducasse. Surrealists provided the survival guides I needed to shore up my crumbling personality and mind. And from early childhood I was always a horror fan. I used to hide in my room at night, all night, and make those plastic monster models.
Moi aussi, dude. I loved all those Aurora models from the Universal Pictures monster movies of the 30s and 40s.
I couldn’t help but associate horror films with supercharged unnatural events that I was actually experiencing. The airplane glue I used to put the monster models together would make me hallucinate when I woke up in the middle of the night, which I almost always did.
Yeah, like who doesn’t?
You asked if I had any epiphanies? Oh yeah! Dracula would be staring me down from the end of my bed and the Hunchback of Notre Dame would be springing around my room like some deformed toad on crystal meth.
Greg Klymkiw’s Colonial Report (on cinema) from the Dominion of Canada
Canadians are better educated, smarter, more socially conscious, modest, polite and quieter than our American brothers and sisters. This is fact. Alas, in the national pride department, Uncle Sam beats our insanely muted approach to flag-waving hands down. The exception to this rule is hockey. When Canucks play this greatest of all great games on an international sheet of ice, our pride-meter slides precariously close to the edge, rivalling even that of the Home of the Brave (though meekly, never besting it). I’m reminded of this rare equilibrium twixt our otherwise contrasting nations thanks to a pair of fine new pictures making their North American bows at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on the heels of their triumphant Cannes debuts in the spring.
Foxcatcher is released in UK cinemas on 9 January 2015 by Entertainment One. Red Army will be released on 19 June 2015 by Curzon Film World.
Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014) ****
Red Army (Gabe Polsky, 2014) ***
Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher and Gabe Polsky’s Red Army are sure to make a huge splash in Canada and the US, where they are being distributed by Mongrel Media and Sony Pictures Classics. Both will no doubt generate major Oscar-buzz here, which has almost become TIFF’s raison d’être, in addition to screening hundreds of movies and acting as an international press junket.
As a staunch denizen of the Dominion of Canada, what makes these two films interesting is how, as sports pictures, they help underline the differences between this vast northern Commonwealth colony and the good old US of A – especially how our respective propaganda machines relate to national pride.
In America, propaganda is everything.
In Canada, propaganda is, well, you know, it’s kind of okay, uh, you know, sort of, because it’s sometimes necessary, well, not necessary, or rather, yes, okay, it is indubitably, sort of vital, but not really, eh.
Foxcatcher, one of the most exciting American movies of the year, very strangely employs propagandistic elements within the narrative structure provided by screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, which, in turn, the director Bennett Miller superbly jockeys in his overall mise-en-scène. Astonishingly, the filmmakers manage to have their cake and eat it too. By offering a detailed examination of propaganda within the context of American history and society, as well as a mounting and ever-subtle critical eye upon it, Miller might continue to add accolades to his mantle in addition to the Best Director nod he copped at Cannes.
The maker of the taut and compelling baseball drama Moneyball (2011) and the well crafted, though somewhat overrated Capote (2005), dazzles us here with the true-life story of Olympic wrestling champions Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Though the shy, unassuming Mark is a gold medal winner in his own right, he’s been overshadowed by his dynamic, gift-of-the-gab-blessed sibling. This all changes when the beefy, brawny mat-brawler is summoned to the palatial estate of John du Pont (Steve Carell in a performance so astonishing I forgot it actually was, uh, Steve Carell until the closing credits), heir to the powerful American dynasty of the du Pont family (who amassed their fortune mainly through the manufacturing of arms for America’s war machine). John offers his unqualified financial sponsorship to Mark, a palatial guesthouse to live in and a state-of-the-art training facility on the grounds of his home. The only catch is that du Pont will be the coach. He knows nothing about coaching, though, and hires brother Dave to be his assistant (and real) coach.
The film charts the friendship between the working class stock of Mark and the privilege of John du Pont, the brothers’ envy-and-love-fused bond, John’s desire to legitimise himself in the eyes of his horsewoman mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and, of course, the endlessly fascinating, meticulous, pain-steeped training and various qualifying competitions leading to the Olympics.
Optics is the ultimate tool-in-trade of blue bloods, and here is where the screenplay and Miller’s unerring directorial eye create a layer that permeates both the narrative and visuals. Even at a low-point early on, Mark keeps the faith in his poverty and loneliness by buttressing himself with the notion that he and those who are both around him and who will follow him must continue to persevere for the sake of America.
Granted, flags are preposterously ubiquitous in America, but one almost senses that those stars and stripes have been carefully included in the backdrop and foreground of the film. One breathtaking moment includes a travelling car interior point-of-view of a huge flag unfurling in the wind as Mark drives to the du Ponts’ Foxcatcher Farms estate.
Certainly, John himself is virtually pathological in his patriotism for America, strolling through the leafy Walden-Pond-like acreage of his estate, guiding Mark to points of historical interest from the American Revolution and spouting the most fervent patriotic rhetoric within the context of virtually everything, but especially within the contexts of both war and (naturally) sports.
The film takes great pains to illustrate John’s attention to details that will accentuate his own accomplishments whether merited or, in the case of his coaching, decidedly not. He goes so far as to hire a film crew to document his work as a coach, and we’re afforded numerous moments where interviewees are cajoled into extolling his virtues, and where he delivers training and words of wisdom his team are already well versed in, which manage to take on mythic proportions through the lens of the cameras.
Brilliantly and with great subtlety, the film’s sense of optics and propaganda amongst the nobility feels infused to a point where non-Americans and certainly discriminating American audiences will sense that Foxcatcher is itself propaganda. As the tale progresses and John du Pont’s inbred eccentricities give way to his becoming slowly and dangerously unhinged, so too does the film shift gears into critical territory. The perception of the American Dream sours and leads to a sad, shocking and downright tragic film about delusions of grandeur transforming into psychopathic proportions – not unlike America itself.
Gabe Polsky’s feature length documentary Red Army is as much about the propaganda machine (of Cold War Russia) as it is pure propaganda unto itself, by placing undue emphasis upon the rivalry between America and the Soviet Union on the blood-spattered battleground of ice hockey competition. Polsky has fashioned a downright spellbinding history of the Red Army hockey team, which eventually became a near-juggernaut of Soviet skill and superiority in the world.
In spite of this, many Canadians will call the film a total crock-and-bull story. While a Maple Leaf perspective might provide an eye more sensitive to Miller’s exploration of the propagandistic gymnastics of American blue blood powerbrokers, there is bound to be more than just a little crying foul over Polsky’s film.
I perhaps have the bias of growing up intimately within the universe of world competition hockey. My own father, Julian Klymkiw, played goal for Canada’s national team in the 1960s, a team that was managed by Chas Maddin (filmmaker Guy Maddin’s father). Guy and I eventually became the respective director-producer team behind Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Archangel and Careful. Maddin went on to immortalise a ‘non-professional’ team from the wintry Canadian prairies in the Jody Shapiro-produced My Winnipeg. It even featured a beefy lookalike of yours-truly wearing a uniform emblazoned with the name ‘Julian Klymberger’ (the surname being one of my own nicknames in years past). To say we were both well aware of the true rivalry in international hockey would be an understatement.
But one didn’t need to actually grow up in hockey families intimately involved with various Team Canada hockey leagues to realise that the United States was a blip on the Soviet rivalry-radar. The only famous match-up between the Soviets and America happened during the 1980 Olympics, when a team of veritable untested ‘kids’ hammered the Soviets (immortalised as the 2004 Walt Disney Studios feature film Miracle starring Kurt Russell).
Polsky’s film uses this match as the film’s primary structural tent pole, and completely ignores the historic 1972 Canada-USSR Summit Series, which has gone down in most histories (save, perhaps, for America’s) as the greatest display of hockey war of all time. His film also ignores, though pays passing lip service, to the fact that the real rivalry throughout the 1970s and 1980s had virtually nothing to do with America and everything to do with Canada and Russia.
I know this all too well.
My own father eventually became the Carling O’Keefe Breweries marketing guru who brokered huge swaths of promotional sponsorship to Team Canada over 15-or-so years and, in fact, worked closely with hockey agent/manager/promoter and Team Canada’s mastermind Alan Eagleson. Dad not only spoke a variety of Slavic languages fluently, but his decades as an amateur and pro hockey player all contributed to making him an invaluable ally to both administrators and players of Team Canada. To the latter, famed Canadian sports reporter Hal Sigurdson reported, ‘Big Julie [Klymkiw] often rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty behind the Canadian bench.’
I’m not, by the way, arguing the absence of my Dad in this film – he did his thing, promoting beer to promote hockey and hockey to promote beer, which allowed him to travel the world and be with all the hockey players he loved – but what I’m shocked about is how Red Army can ignore my Dad’s old pal and colleague. The film includes ONE – count ’em – ONE off-camera sound bite from Alan Eagleson.
Polsky appears to have made no effort to even interview the man himself or include the reams of historic interview footage of Eagleson that fills a multitude of archives to over-flowing. Eagleson, for all the scandals that eventually brought him down, including imprisonment for fraud and embezzlement convictions, was the game’s most important individual on the North American side to make Soviet match-ups in the Western world a reality, and to allow professional North American players to go head-to-head with the Soviets. (Though Eagleson went down in flames, my Dad always remarked straight-facedly, ‘The “Eagle” never screwed me.’)
How, then, can a documentary about Soviet hockey so wilfully mute this supremely important Canadian angle to the tale? Where are the interviews (new or archival) with such hockey superstars as Gordie Howe (including sons Mark and Marty), Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Marc Tardif and all the others who battled the Soviets on-ice? Why are there only mere blips of Wayne (‘The Great One’) Gretzky, most notably a clip in which he sadly refers to the Soviets’ unstoppable qualities? Why are there not more pointed interview bites with the former Soviet players discussing the strength of Canadian players? It’s not like archival footage of this doesn’t exist.
There’s only one reason for any of these errors of omission: all the aforementioned personages and angles are Canadian. Ignoring the World Hockey Association’s (WHA) bouts with the USSR is ludicrous enough, but by focusing on the 1980 Olympic tourney and placing emphasis on the National Hockey League (NHL), the latter of which is optically seen as a solely AMERICAN interest, Red Army is clearly not the definitive documentary about the Soviet players that its director and, most probably American fans and pundits, assume it is.
Even if one were to argue that the story Polsky was interested in telling didn’t allow for angling Canadian involvement more vigorously, ‘one’ would be wrong. The story of Soviet hockey supremacy has everything to do with Canada – a country that provided their only consistent and serious adversary, a country that embraced hockey as intensely as the USSR and a country, by virtue of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s official policy of Canadian multiculturalism, that reflected the vast number of Canuck players who had Eastern European blood and culture coursing through them.
As a side note to this, it’s also strange how Polsky, the son of Soviet Ukrainian immigrants, ignores the fact that a huge majority of great Soviet players were ethnically Ukrainian. I vividly remember meeting so many of those legends as a kid and listening to them talk with my Dad about a day when maybe, just maybe, Ukraine would have its independence and display Ukrainian hockey superiority over the Russians, never mind the rest of the world. (Given the current struggles between Russia and Ukraine, this might have made for a very interesting political cherry-on-the-sundae.)
Ultimately, Red Army is American propaganda, or at the very least, is deeply imbued with American propagandistic elements. Given that it’s about Soviet hockey players, I find this strangely and almost hilariously ironic, which in and of itself, gives the movie big points.
All this kvetching aside, Red Army is still a good film. Focusing on the historic and political backdrop of Joseph Stalin and those leaders who followed him, all of who built up one of the greatest, if not the greatest series of hockey teams in the world, this is still a supremely entertaining movie. Polsky’s pacing, sense of character and storytelling is slick and electric. The subjects he does focus upon, the greatest line of Soviet players in hockey history, all deliver solid bedrock for a perspective many hockey fans (and even non-hockey fans) know nothing or little about.
Polsky even interviews a former KGB agent who accompanied the Soviet players to North America in order to guard against defection to the West. Here again, though, I’ll kvetch about a funny Canadian perspective. Dad not only played hockey, not only was he a marketing guy, but he even squeezed in a decade of being a damn good cop in Winnipeg, and when Team Canada went to Russia, Dad would go from hotel room to hotel room, find bugs (not the plentiful cockroaches, either) and rip the KGB surveillance devices out of their hiding places for himself, his colleagues, players and administrators from the West.
I’ll also admit to enjoying the interviews with the likes of NHL coach Scotty Bowman and Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak; however, the most compelling subject in Polsky’s film is the Soviet defenceman Slava Fetisov, who movingly recounts the early days of his hockey career, his friendship and brotherhood with the other players and his leading role in encouraging Soviet players to defect for the big money of pro hockey in North America. It’s also alternately joyous and heartbreaking to see the juxtaposition between the balletic Soviet styles of play with that of the violent, brutal North American approach.
Contrast is, of course, an important element of any storytelling, but in a visual medium like film, it’s especially vital. It’s what provides the necessary conflict. With Red Army, however, the conflict is extremely selective. It is, after all, an American movie, and as both this film and Foxcatcher prove, if Americans do anything really well, it’s propaganda. Us Canucks here in the colonies can only stew in our green-with-envy pot of inferiority. We know we’re the best, but we have no idea how to tell this to the rest of the world, and least of all, to ourselves.
Kudos to Polsky and America are unreservedly owed. They show us all how it’s done.
From the Dominion of Canada, I bid you a hearty ‘Bon Cinema’.
Cast: Aaron Poole, Jacob Switzer, Hannah Cheesman, Jessica Greco
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
What a thrill it is to experience a first-rate cast serving up one of Canada’s finest ensemble pieces in years. It should probably come as no surprise. With her latest film The Animal Project, Ingrid Veninger (Modra, I am a good person, I am a bad person), the whirling-est-dervish director of independent cinema in our fair Dominion, successfully explodes all (well, most) pre-conceptions anyone (well, mostly me, probably) might ever harbour with respect to movies all about the love, pain and touchy-feely twee gymnastics actors go through on and off stage. In fact, being a fan of all of Veninger’s ebullient coffee-cream-Cassavetes-like pictures to date, I’ll admit to feeling terrified that I’d even have to see it.
How will I ever forget that telltale aroma of putrescence as it wafted past my keenly attuned olfactory system? A mere trace of the lingering flatus, like some gently offensive perpetual mist in the dank hallways of a hooker hotel, did cruelly signal to me that The Animal Project was about – ugh! – actors. ‘Twas enough to render me apoplectic.
I immediately imagined a grotesque gag-me-with-a-large-wooden-spoon Toronto hipster vision of some insubstantial pageant, one of which dreams – nay, nightmares – are made of, one in which I’d have to nail my feet to the floor to keep watching, one wherein the potentially preferable choice would be to round my little life with one good mega-snooze.
I’m glad I did not succumb to this preconception. In fact, within seconds of the picture’s unspooling, I was hooked (line and sinker), realizing I was in for something far more substantial and downright entertaining. Actors at its centre or not, Veninger has crafted a movie that’s rooted firmly in the ‘all the world’s a stage’ territory and in the idea that actors, as indelibly written by Canada’s poetess laureate of guerrilla-warfare-as-cinema, are living, breathing human beings with all the challenges anyone faces – no matter who they are or what they do. It is, happily, no stretch to declare that all the glorious men and women of The Animal Project are players on the stage of life, though like all of humanity, they are no ‘mere’ players.
Leo (Aaron Poole) is a Toronto acting teacher in the midst of several life challenges. On the professional front, he feels like he’s not adequately breaking through the barriers his adult students have set up for themselves. As actors they must discover those inner sparks within their own emotions to freely render performances that will evoke the sort of truth that must not only be their stock in trade but also eventually become almost second nature. Leo appears exasperated by his students’ progress or lack thereof, though he doesn’t overtly blame any of them for their less-than-heartfelt efforts. The endless exercises he puts them through are not only boring him, but his acting students too and they are predictably resorting to self-indulgence and/or mind-numbing inconsequence.
Whatever the problem, he feels he’s to blame.
On the home front, Leo’s a single dad trying to raise Sam (Jacob Switzer), his 17-year-old son who seems to get more distant by the second. The kid means the world to him, but here, on the stage of hearth and home, Leo continues to express self-doubt – if not in words, then by his actions. As a dad, he’s clutching onto a slender thread and feels it could snap at any moment. For his part, Sam’s skipping classes, having ever-later starts to his days and sucking back doobies as if he’s sensing an impending worldwide shortage of bud. He works prodigiously on his music, though his practising feels more like an assault upon his dad’s need for quiet and solitude. Neither seems to understand the other, but as such, they might understand each other all too well.
Ain’t it always the way with parents and their kids? The trick is to make sure the twain shall meet. That, however, is always easier said than done.
On a strictly personal front, Leo’s looking for something but damned if he knows what it is. He carries the weight of his search into everything and it especially rears its head in the acting class in the form of a clearly adversarial relationship twixt himself and the cynical, laconic Saul (Joey Klein), evidently the most promising of the bunch. It’s in this relationship that the viewer is gob-smacked with the realization that Klein and Poole are delivering exactly the kind of performances that keep one riveted to the screen.
Quite often, these two actors hit you right in the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of your proverbial sails and connecting with every nerve ending within your body and soul. As actors, they surely kissed the ground their writer walked upon for generating these characters. The intense loggerheads Sam and Saul find themselves at have clearly been building for some time. There’s something unanswered, unacknowledged between them, and we sense it has to eventually explode beyond the verbal and psychological. Like with all human animals it might need to get physical. They are, after all, both tough-minded sons of bitches. Fists might be the way to settle things, but then again, maybe not.
Maybe someone needs a hug.
I kid you not. As ludicrous (and twee-ishly sickening) as this may seem on the page, it makes perfect sense within the world of the film. Leo, for instance, once made a film with his son when Sam was just a child. In it, the kid was dressed in a bunny suit and wandering through the more groove-ola streets of Toronto, offering, uninhibitedly, hugs to total strangers. Hey, don’t knock inspiration. It’s usually just around the corner, but we’ve got to grab it for dear life.
And WHAT inspiration! This might just be the acting exercise the doctor ordered. Inspired by a dream, his old film, and by extension, his relationship with Sam, Leo wants his class to don animal masks and full body costumes, then go out into the world and offer, you guessed it, hugs. The potential for all inhibitions to break down on a professional, personal and just plain human level seems – possibly – within reach.
Wouldn’t it be grand if life were so simple?
We see here the sheer, astonishing brilliance of Veninger’s writing. It’s this very basic premise, which yields several layers of complexity and narrative flesh, that eventually gives way to a multitudinous amount of tissue and viscera. This goes well beyond mere skin-deep, but takes all the characters, and the film’s audience, deep into the bone marrow.
Though Leo, Sam and Saul are the film’s prime connective tissue, it’s all linked to a varied number of interesting, cool and recognizable characters. We’re treated to the journeys of the young man caring for his dying father (Emmanuel Kabongo), the wisecracking lesbian shielding the hurt of being dumped (Jessica Greco), the great-waste-of-life desk-job gent (Johnathan Sousa), who needs not only to act but find love, the lass from Kelowna (Sarena Parmar) who declares she wants to be an actress, but does so with a question mark at the end of her not-so convincing attestation. She probably needs to embrace the girl out of Kelowna by acknowledging she can’t take the Kelowna out of the girl. Last, but certainly not least, we also become intimate with the tall drink of water thespian (Hannah Cheesman) who, armed with an array of technically sound accents and a voluminous collection of auditions for awful TV shows, displays technical proficiency but hides the true talent lurking within and, perhaps most of all, the real person.
Veninger’s script juggles this multi-character drama with considerable skill, and as a director her fly-on-the-wall perspective is astonishingly natural. In addition to a superb production design that’s as much about character and emotion as it is about looking impeccably rendered, the film’s visual gifts are plentiful. The picture is gorgeously shot and Veninger maintains a relatively strict adherence as to where the camera always needs to be in terms of telling the tale visually (though with no labour seams visible). Given the unique nature of low-budget filmmaking, the movie’s gifts are bountiful, from the breathtaking cutting and first-rate sound works to the evocative score. No stone was left unturned in this ravishing production.
The Animal Project is ultimately powerful stuff and its story, characters and thematic underbelly offer a universal resonance. It feels like the work of someone who’s done some living and has the potential to touch a wide range of people. We discover, quite naturally and with no didacticism, that the masks we wear are indeed what we use to crash through our inhibitions to hit the raw nerves of truth and self-discovery in order to move forward in the world, with our spirit, soul, intellect and emotions. It’s how we must live. Most importantly, though, the masks we wear are not enough. We must learn to wear them well.
From the wilds of the northern-most tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the Dominion of Canada, I bid you a hearty ‘Bon cinema!’
The Animal Project is available worldwide via Vimeo On Demand. In Canada it unspooled theatrically via Mongrel Media, one of the country’s safe harbours for fresh, new, exciting and fiercely independent cinema) at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto (the year-round home for all of TIFF’s activities , including the Toronto International Film Festival).
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
In the late spring of 2010, Jody Shapiro joyfully announced on Facebook that he was headed to Winnipeg to produce Keyhole, a new Guy Maddin fantasia starring Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini and Udo Kier. I immediately sprang into action and furnished him with my most recently updated Greg Klymkiw’s Guide to Winnipeg (see sidebar for all the gory details). The following is our exchange on Facebook after Jody received it:
JODY: Thanks so much for the Guide. You’ll be pleased to know I’ve circulated it to the entire cast and crew and personally handed hard copies to Jason, Isabella and Udo.
GREG: Why do I have a feeling Mr Kier will take special interest in some of my suggested activities?
JODY: Hah! Agreed. Maybe Guy will do some of the things in your Guide to Winnipeg with me.
GREG: Can you do me a favour?
JODY: Name it.
GREG: At some appropriate moment of privacy and solace, would you (a) kneel before Guy on my behalf to pay him that special homage that only those who adore him with all their heart truly can and (b) whilst nimbly offering said tribute from the deepest pit of my soul, make absolutely sure that the photograph of me as Akmatov in The Heart of the World is firmly affixed to the top of your head so that his eyes are trained greedily upon my visage?
JODY: Done. Aaaaaannnnnnndddd done.
* * *
There’s a special language that develops, a shorthand, if you will, when two gents become acquainted, bonded forever, if you will, by sharing relationships with the same object of affection and, furthermore, communicating and/or commiserating, if you will, about said object of passion. Depending on the parties involved and how deep their respective repressions are, how dark and cosy their respective closets are, and how comfortable they be with each other’s mutual peccadilloes, one can safely say the aforementioned ligatures of manly gentility also apply to the greatest love/marriage of all; that between a movie producer and director. To wit, one can safely define Canadian surrealist film artist Guy Maddin and his relationships with producers within the following: beforeTwilight of the Ice Nymphs and afterTwilight of the Ice Nymphs. Acknowledging the happy aberration within these parameters, Vonnie Von Helmolt’s first-rate producerial gymnastics with Maddin on Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, the ‘before’ in this equation would be myself, and the ‘after’, none other than the charming, brilliant, deeply committed artist and filmmaker Jody Shapiro, who began his odd professional-artistic history with Maddin some nine years after mine had ended.
Jody is the director of the all-new Burt’s Buzz, a supremely entertaining documentary portrait of Burt Shavitz, the man whose face adorns a myriad of sweetly gooey products hogging shelves of health stores and pharmacies the world over. Shavitz’s insanely ubiquitous honey-infused lip balms and other body applications that bear the moniker ‘Burt’s Bees’ and his life story will receive a Canadian theatrical premiere at TIFF Bell Lightbox (the year-round home for all of TIFF’s activities, including the Toronto International Film Festival) on 13 June, following its American theatrical debut on 6 June 2014. Jody’s film also enjoyed a successful world premiere during TIFF 2013, so it seems entirely appropriate the film launches here for the general movie-going public here in the Dominion of Canada.
Watch the trailer for Burt’s Buzz:
Yes, Virginia, Santa Claus is a myth, but at least there really is a Burt.
When I recently pinned Guy to a wall and asked if he’s ever harboured masturbation fantasies involving Shapiro, he blushed, shook his head rather unconvincingly, lowered his gaze from mine and instead launched into reciting his own unique Tod Browning-like scene (not unlike the bizarre Browning pitches detailed in the great biography Dark Carnival by David J. Skal and Elias Savada). Maddin’s Shapiro-inspired scene (which hopefully will tuck its way into some future Maddin endeavour) goes thusly:
‘I see Jody at the TIFF premiere of one of his films – he’s outside the theatre stressing about getting comps to his friends. A hundred comp requests have been cavalierly tossed off in recent email correspondences. In this hypothetical (and cruel) scenario, some of the friends feel guilty that they haven’t shown much interest in Jody’s filmmaking over the previous years, so they figure they can pay him a compliment by requesting free tickets to his show. Many of these intend to go, but as the premiere approaches they realize they would rather not go. Some of them get as far as the theatre where they are greeted by long anxiety-inducing line-ups, and the sight of Jody on tippy-toes trying to find his comped friends. For his part, Jody would rather he didn’t have so many friends, especially the ones failing to show up 15 minutes early as he requested. He would much rather be inside, hyperventilating and prepping his introductory remarks, but, no, he must find these friends. Now all the stomachs are churning. Oh, the all-round anxiety! As is often the case with funerals, this strong feeling – of dread in this case, not grief – is an aphrodisiac. Jody’s friends, some not even knowing each other, throng cheek-by-jowl together outside the theatre and bond over the atmosphere hanging over the festival. Soon they pair off and fall into nearby bushes in ardent clinches! (I’m thinking now of the bushes outside Elisabeth Bader Theatre!) And there they stay, forestalling dread and anxiety by attempting to satisfy their lusts of odd providence, and the excitement only gets more and more unbearable the closer Jody’s ever-searching footsteps come to their illicitly and thoughtlessly trysting bodies. I see the scene ending, as it must, with Jody returning to the theatre, now packed with those of the unknown public who lined up in the stand-by queue, the filmmaker’s pockets bulging with comps lovingly set aside for acquaintances who got off betraying his devotion. Hot! Super hot!’
My immediate thought is this: I wonder if such an inspirational confluence of passionate bodily juices would even remotely cross the cerebella of Shapiro’s childhood friends from his North York stomping grounds on Osmond Court near Steeles and Leslie – friends he’s maintained close ties with since those halcyon days among the sleepy, grassy suburbs of Mel Lastman Land (Mel being the longtime King of North York, one-time Mayor of Toronto and furniture salesman). And how about Jody’s parents? His school teacher/principal Mom and key Ontario government consultant Dad? Might they envision their son, a nice Jewish boy from the land of majestic synagogues, delis, creameries and bagel shops embroiled – no matter how inadvertently – in such Maddinesque shenanigans? Well, perhaps not, but Shapiro proudly maintains he was never expected to enter the stereotypically staid world of ‘professional’ activities involving accounting, lawyering, doctoring or dentistry.
‘My parents were always 100% supportive of my need to pursue art,’ says Shapiro as we puff cigarettes on the sunny outdoor Gabby’s King Street patio – conveniently across from the majestic TIFF Bell Lightbox complex.
In fact, other than to smoke my endless supply of bargain-priced Aboriginal ciggies, art is what’s brought Shapiro to the neighbourhood this very day. During the previous TIFF he marvelled at the huge display boards in the Lightbox lobby, which thousands of people pay homage to – scouring the ever-amorphous schedule of world cinema. ‘They’re designed, hand-crafted for utility, but they’re also beautiful in and of themselves. They represent one massive snapshot of an important cultural event – not just in this city, but the world,’ says Shapiro. ‘I asked Cameron [Bailey, TIFF Artistic Director] if the boards were archived but given TIFF’s storage needs, they eventually make a trip to the recycle bin.’
So what’s a feller like Shapiro gonna do? He photographs them, of course – his goal now is to photograph them every year from here on in and eventually – ‘Maybe a book, maybe an installation, perhaps even a permanent exhibit somewhere. Most importantly for me is that these photographs will exist as a record’ – of what once was, is and will be.
This makes complete sense, of course, as does his family’s support. There was probably never a time in Shapiro’s childhood and adolescence when he wasn’t looking at life through a camera lens. ‘Pictures tell stories,’ Shapiro offers. ‘Stories are everything.’
This early obsession with visual storytelling grabbed him by the lapels and hung on for dear life. As a teenager, he fell in love with the immediacy of the Polaroid SX-70 camera and used it to tell stories with a ‘single image’ and upon graduating from High School, armed with a portfolio that might have been the envy of most burgeoning Yousuf Karsh aspirants, he entered York University’s Fine Arts program where he began his studies in photography. He eventually switched to film and video. ‘Most of my time,’ he explains, ‘was spent waiting for a darkroom’. Mostly, though, his love of storytelling and his desire to capture a reality that was mediated through a lens drew him closer to pictures that moved.
Here, one major event changed his life immeasurably. He volunteered to give Rhombus Media partner Niv Fichman (The Red Violin, Last Night) a ride up to York for a guest lecture. Shapiro lived, by this time, in the Annex downtown, which one would presume was an ideal location for him to offer this kindness. Unfortunately, Shapiro did not own a car, so he needed to travel way up to North York, borrow his Mom’s vehicle, drive back downtown and wait outside for Niv. Then, the battery died. Neither Shapiro nor Fichman will ever be mistaken for grease monkeys and this spanner in the works proved a most vexing challenge, which they eventually pulled off with aplomb (and a bit of assistance from the roadside service of the Canadian Auto Association – one of the Dominion’s unsung heroes during the frequent inclement weather here in the Colonies).
Once the vehicle was roadworthy, the two gentlemen forged northwards. Shapiro was then afforded the opportunity to converse and hit it off with the head honcho of what was, at the time, the world’s leading production company devoted to classical music documentaries for television.
After graduation at York U in 1994, Shapiro joined the Rhombus team and never looked back. This became his real film school – one in which he assumed a variety of roles – learning from such brilliant directors as Larry Weinstein (September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill) and Barbara Willis Sweete (Yo Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach) and, of course, one of the world’s most outstanding producers, Niv Fichman.
And it was here where Shapiro eventually met Guy Maddin in late 1999. Fichman had brokered a brilliant deal with TIFF to celebrate the festival’s 25th anniversary and the Preludes were born: a series of short films helmed from coast to coast by Canada’s most acclaimed directors, which Shapiro would be producing in the field. The films are endowed with high points, to be sure, but nothing – and I do mean nothing – comes close to the dizzying epic scope of Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World.
‘The first time I met Guy was over the telephone,’ says Shapiro. ‘We were supposed to get acquainted and have an initial production discussion. I knew his work to this point very well and I must have spent days preparing for our chat, but all we talked about for an hour – maybe longer – was baseball.’
Shapiro has always believed that filmmaking should be fun, and in that he was influenced by Maddin, who urged him to treat the act of filmmaking as playing in a big sandbox. ‘It really was this collaboration with Guy that nailed it for me,’ notes Shapiro. ‘Fun truly became, and continued to be, the order of the day.’
Maddin, for his part, thinks the world of Shapiro, as a highly valuable producer and mensch of the highest order. ‘Look,’ insists Maddin in that way of insisting that only Maddin has. ‘The guy served 10 grinding years under the delightful thumb of Niv Fichman at the Rhombus dream factory, learning every aspect of filmmaking from top to bottom – at first, I’m sure, mostly bottom.’
Bottoms have always been integral to Gay Maddin’s art also, and he continues to wax eloquent on the matter of Fichman’s attention to Shapiro’s own bottom and subsequent moves up the ladder of love, the ladder of cinematographic epiphany. ‘I can think of no better place for a bright young thing to learn as much as Jody did, stuff they never teach you at film school,’ Maddin explains rapturously. ‘Rhombus stresses the slow massaging of the deal, getting to know the filmmakers organically. A great deal of stress is put on diplomacy, and with that, necessarily, on eating well with big league talent. Jody learned his diplomacy very well indeed and there is no more gracious man working in the business. He’s unafraid of titans as we approach them hat in hand to help us on our projects.’
I have to personally agree with Maddin. I first met Jody on the set of Heart of the World. Guy asked me if I would play the role of Akmatov the industrialist and I accepted immediately. This was a bit of long-gestating unfinished business twixt Guy and myself after I turned down the lead role in Tales from the Gimli Hospital to go to law school, but then never bothered to go – by which point, he’d recast it and I leapt on board as its producer. And now, here I was, so many years later – on the set and utterly in awe of this ‘kid’ Shapiro, tear-assing all over the place like a whirling dervish – even picking up a camera and shooting like some kind of Sven Nykvist on speedballs.
Maddin confirms Jody’s prowess as a versatile creative producer. ‘Jody’s a superb cinematographer. When he and I had trouble keeping DOPs on My Winnipeg – it turned out we were offering so little money we kept losing our cinematographers to other projects, including, in one case, a local French CBC-TV puppet show – we just decided that he would do the shooting, and we never regretted that. We saved $500 and he did a much better job than anyone else could have!’
The Shapiro-Maddin collaboration continued for several pictures. According to Maddin, the reason this relationship worked so well was Shapiro’s ‘impeccable sensitivity to the concerns of others, but iron will in his resolve to get results. That’s a rare combo in Canadian film, which is normally a roiling mess of deferential passive-aggressives enraged by how collaborators failed to intuit the most ardent hopes in others.’
While producing Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World, Shapiro developed a close friendship and creative bond with star Isabella Rossellini. Between his own producing and directing stints (prior to Burt’s Buzz, Shapiro helmed the magnificent Ice Breaker and How To Start Your Own Country), he embarked upon Green Porno, Rossellini’s immortal series of short films sexualizing nature in all its glory. ‘Isabella is the Jean Painlevé of her day,’ says Maddin. ‘With a singular bio-comedic manifesto, an inscrutable tone so delicate it could easily get crushed by the distractions of simply making the work, it was Jody who was instrumental in helping her see her mission through. He frequently produced, directed or co-directed, and even shot the episodes.’
Rossellini, serving as an Executive Producer on Burt’s Buzz, concurs: ‘If it wasn’t for Jody’s special style of making films, I would have never been a director. He knows how films can be made diligently and meticulously, but without the many assistants running around and numerous memos and call sheets. This style actually gave me the courage to direct.’
Maddin adds: ‘Jody is there – as close to conception as is humanly possible and he’s there right till he put on his midwife’s hat. Do midwives wear hats?’
Well, Burt Shavitz certainly wears a hat and he’s been midwife to billions upon billions of bees and frankly, given Shapiro’s pedigree, could there be anyone better to tell Burt’s story than the meticulous, amiable Shapiro? Upon meeting Shavitz through Rossellini, who’d been contracted by the Burt’s Bees Company to be a spokesperson for their product, Shapiro was immediately taken with the bearded old hippie. Rossellini suggested the company hire Jody to shoot a series of interviews that they could use for archival purposes. Shapiro spent a few days getting to know Burt and interviewing him. Going through the footage, Shapiro was convinced a documentary film existed in there somewhere. When he heard that Burt, this supremely private old guy, happy to just be alone on his farm, would soon be taking a promotional tour to the Far East, Shapiro launched into action immediately. A film about Burt Shavitz had to be made.
‘This was the juxtaposition I needed,’ said Shapiro. ‘This is the story I wanted to tell – a private man who occasionally must become very public.’
Hearing Shapiro talk about his film – why he wanted to make it and how he’d be approaching it – was music to my ears. This was exactly why I was so thoroughly and immensely entertained by Burt’s Buzz. The film is mostly all-Burt-all-the-time and for me, was just what the doctor ordered. The camera loves the guy, and his low-key irascibility allows Shapiro to indelibly capture him as the man himself engagingly spins his own story – the city boy who moved to the backwoods to become an avid beekeeper, then, with assistance from the woman he loved, saw his business grow to gargantuan proportions. The shy country gentleman became a brand until melancholy set in and he became unhappy with corporate life. He then experienced the dissipation of love when he engaged in an affair with an employee. This is when his former lover and practical head of the company reportedly forced Burt to sell out his shares for peanuts.
There are certainly any number of strands to this story for any filmmaker to go in and sever the jugular – most notably the implication that Burt is forced out for reasons of sexual harassment, and the unavoidable fact that his former company and, importantly, his image are being used by a corporate entity that now owns the whole shooting match of Burt’s Bees, an entity seen in some circles as anything but a model citizen of natural, whole, healthy remedies.
Burt Shavitz, you see, is no longer just Burt Shavitz – everything he was, is and continues to be, especially as the face of Burt’s Bees (both in terms of branding and in public appearances) – is owned by the dreaded Clorox Corporation.
Shapiro maintains a sense of ambiguity around the issue of Burt’s potential engagement in sexual harassment, which I’d strongly agree with. Given that Shavitz comes from an era of free fucking galore, he’d have no idea what sexual harassment was if it came along and tore out a fresh asshole in his posterior regions. Not that that should be an excuse, but I genuinely feel the guy is a charming, ruggedly handsome rake, but because he also does have a degree of naivety coursing through him, I’d have no difficulty in believing he could be duped into signing a dotted line based on allegations of said harassment – never by the ‘victim’ in question, but in fact, by ‘the woman scorned’ – the woman he was once in love with and, the film implies, might still be in love with.
At the end of the day, this is great storytelling.
As to the whole issue of the Clorox connection, Shapiro maintains: ‘That would be a different movie. It’s not the one I wanted to make.’ As a viewer, I agree. It’s certainly not the movie I’d have personally wanted to see. Burt Shavitz is just too damn cool and I’d prefer to spend time with him – not a story dealing with environmental ironies. That so clearly isn’t Burt’s tale.
Besides, one of the astounding bits of information Shapiro relates is that the company sold back the rights to all his original interview footage with Burt for practically nothing. Even more amazing is that they signed every piece of legal documentation Shapiro needed to make the movie his way – without any approvals of any kind. They signed everything before Shapiro proceeded to make the movie. They then gave him unfettered access to anything and everything. If Shapiro had wanted to make either a promotional film or one that shredded the company from top to bottom, he had every right and all the permission he needed to do so.
He was interested, ultimately, in the man himself.
This is echoed by one of Shapiro’s biggest champions, Steve Gravestock, a Senior Programmer with TIFF and the topper of their Special Canadian Projects and, in general, all things cinematically Canadian. ‘Jody has lots of the qualities good directors have, he’s energetic, committed, curious,’ says Gravestock. ‘I think his rarest quality, particularly within the filmmaking world, is that he seems sort of ego-less. At least, he doesn’t seem to be driven by it either exclusively or primarily. That trait served him well as a producer obviously but it is also probably one of the most important attributes a documentary filmmaker can have. It allows Jody to respond to and profile his subjects in a way devoid of overt editorializing. He has made films about people whom most or many would dismiss as eccentric or just plain nuts, but being dismissive isn’t in his films at all. That doesn’t mean that he’s overly sympathetic to his subjects or functioning as a cheerleader or lacks his own point of view, but he has that kind of clear-eyed empathy allowing us to encounter these people without leaping to easy value judgments.’
At one point, during our time together, Shapiro reveals how insanely busy he’s been with school. ‘School?’ I ask. He responds that he’s studying at George Brown College to be a chef and hopes to soon be interning at a friend’s restaurant. My response is almost dismissive – as if this is just some kind of a hobby. ‘Oh, that makes perfect sense,’ I offer and then add, ‘Cooking – especially at a heightened level – is clearly a fabulous creative outlet.’
Shapiro lowers his head then raises it with a smile. ‘Look, I really have no idea what the future’s going to bring for me in the film business. It’s not like what I do puts me in a position where I can actually apply for a job. I can’t actually be hired for anything.’
‘Fuck off,’ I tell him. ‘You’ve just made a movie with your own money, you own it free and clear, you’ve got John ‘Fucking’ Sloss’s company FilmBuff handling sales and Burt Shavitz is beloved all over the world. On that alone, the movie’s going to sell to millions of his fans. And what? You’re going to chuck it all and be a chef?’
He smiles demurely, excuses himself and heads to the little boys’ room. I’m wondering if he’s pulling a Burt Shavitz on me. Two days later, I got my answer. He sent me a text message that reads: ‘Just made this in class tonight. I thought of you immediately.’ Attached is a photograph of the most mouth-watering Ukrainian food I’ve laid eyes on since my Baba died. I wonder if her spirit has somehow parked itself in Jody’s soul. Then it hits me like a truckload of kishka. I remember that Jody’s grandfather served up some of the finest delicacies this side of North End Winnipeg and that side of the Montreal Main at the long-gone Quality Kosher Kitchen at Dundas and Spadina.
A few weeks later, I’ve dragged Jody to Jilly’s, one of the finer Gentlemen’s Clubs in Toronto, which sadly, will soon be shuttered because of the endless gentrification of the biggest city in our fair Dominion. While we’re getting private dances in the V.I.P. room, I tell Jody my fantasy of buying the building to save this shrine to the magnificence of the female form and forevermore keep a safe harbour for the young fellows of the local Hell’s Angels (formerly ‘Satan’s Choice’) to continue celebrating birthday parties.
Shapiro smiles and admits, ‘I have a fantasy, too. It’s a perfect fit for this obsession you have of always drawing parallels between us, but this time, it has nothing to do with Guy.’
‘Do tell,’ I plead like some chub in the Steamworks Baths in Toronto’s Church Street Boys Town.
‘Well, I may be a lot more Klymkiw-esque than you think,’ he answers saucily. ‘I’ve recently gone into full-on survivalist mode.’
‘You’re finally building a fallout shelter?’ I ask whilst Wanda, a comely platinum blonde, grinds into my crotch.
‘I’ve teamed up with Michel Hunter, an executive chef who hunts,’ he declares proudly whilst demurely gesturing to Flossie, a nubile African-Canadian adorned in a fluorescent pink wig, that he’s happy with her gyrations at a greater distance than my own. He continues: ‘The two of us are working on a photo book about wild game hunting and preparation. I’ve now cooked four different squirrel dishes! Delicious!!!’
He paused wistfully then said, ‘You know that thing I mentioned to you when we last met? The cooking thing? Well, I really have become obsessed with cooking and I’m finally staging in a real kitchen when I have the time – working the line and everything. My fantasy is that I’m training to be a chef and may one day switch careers.’
Ah, I think, he’s not genuinely abandoning his brilliant filmmaking career. Nestled in the comfy red-velvet-lined comfy chairs at Jilly’s, I can’t get an image out of my head – one that’s married to Guy Maddin’s words from his sex-charged Tod-Browning-like idea for a scene in a movie involving Jody.
I think long and hard about the Ukrainian food he prepared. I see the soul of my own Baba and the soul of Jody’s Zayde swishing about in the very depths of Shapiro’s soul – their ‘trysting bodies in ardent clinches’. It becomes clear to me that there could be a lot worse than making movies and cooking. Kind of like Burt Shavitz enjoying the adulation afforded him by fans in a Target store and his fees from that allowing him the privilege of living life the way he likes it best – in solitude – his loyal dog at his side amongst hills, trees, birds and, of course, the bees.
From the wilds of the northern-most tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the Dominion of Canada, I bid you a hearty ‘Bon cinema!’
Burt’s Buzz is released theatrically in selected US cities on 6 June 2014 and at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Canada on 13 June 2014.
A collaboration between filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and composer Phil Kline
World premiere: 26 January 2014, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival
Venue: Centennial Concert Hall, Winnipeg, Canada
Artistic directors and curators: Alexander Mickelthwate, Matthew Patton
The grand, red-carpeted Piano Nobile of Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall rests majestically under several chandeliers, which are not unlike bushy, shimmering inverted Christmas trees the size of the four-storey early 20th-century neo-classical corporate buildings that continue to dot the downtown streets of this once-powerful Midwestern Canadian burgh that reigned for three quarters of a century as a transport hub so vibrant it was dubbed ‘Little Chicago’.
These days, one is more likely to see tumbleweeds scuttling across Winnipeg’s wide avenues rather than people, but on blisteringly subarctic nights like this one, 26 January in the year of Our Lord 2014, one spies a few mighty snow-ploughing tractors and, sadly, weather-beaten panel vans filled with humanitarian aid workers dispensing hot coffee, sandwiches and blankets to the city’s homeless who stumble, Dawn of the Dead-like, o’er the icy streets under the warming influence of Lysol and cheap cooking wine from nearby Chinatown.
This is the Winnipeg currently governed by Mayor Sam Katz and a city council working in the grand tradition of those civic rulers before who, for personal gain, destroyed a once-great city’s genuinely vibrant downtown.
There is, however, no such blight within the warm confines of the palatial home to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra where a happy post-performance reception takes place in homage to a night in which history, albeit cultural history, has been made here in Historic Winnipeg, the Forgotten Winter City of Death, Dreams and Dashed Hopes.
The guests of honour are none other than celebrated American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and his collaborator, composer Phil Kline. They are here to present the world premiere of what will be the first of several public offerings of an exciting new work-in-progress, an opera entitled Tesla in New York. This collaboration between the pair of childhood chums, now well into their august years, bears the armament of their mutual love, appreciation and admiration for the legendary inventor Nikola Tesla.
Jarmusch himself is an impressive figure to his assembled admirers. Adorned in a military-green long-sleeved flannel shirt and black jeans, and sporting his trademark shock of white porcupine-needle hair upon his huge, brain-stuffed dome and his intense, and impressively chiselled, Hungarian facial featurs, he also fits the mould of the youthful ’Pegger artists who join him amongst the tony, blue-rinse set of Winnipeg’s ‘Old Money’.
‘Music,’ says Jarmusch after the performance, ‘is the most beautiful form of artistic expression and I sincerely believe film is the most closely related artistic form to music. It’s why I make movies, but it’s also why I feel the need to make opera.’
To say that music is often the driving force behind Jarmusch’s cinematic visuals, if not their very heart and soul, might well be an understatement. Can anyone imagine Eszter Balint in Stranger Than Paradise dragging her luggage through the monochrome warzone of New York without Screamin’ Jay Hawkins intoning his crazed seductive yelps of ‘I Put A Spell on You’, or for that matter as the film’s Greek Chorus of ennui and passion?
‘Music’, Jarmusch elaborates, ‘is my guide into the greater world through the medium of film. There were many places I’d never visited and wanted to get to know because of the music that came from them. The music of New Orleans and Memphis, for example, are what led me to eventually make films like Down by Law and Mystery Train. As for Tesla in New York, I know New York intimately, but I’m hoping the opera will allow me, through fact, fancy and imagination, to get to know Tesla’s New York.’
Music and made-in-Winnipeg-cinema have always nestled cosily under the fluffy blankets of glorious warmth and forgetfulness. To wit: earlier in the evening, while grabbing a smoke outside the Centennial Concert Hall in the -40 climes, I spied Guy Maddin, surely one of cinema’s great working film artists. He was scuttling maniacally up the granite front steps, strewn with sand to prevent icy tumbles, hurtling himself into the balmy ticket vestibule.
I sucked back the remainder of my bâton de cancer filled ever so generously with tax-free all-Natural Native Tobacco I secured earlier that day on a nearby reservation populated by my entrepreneurial Aboriginal Brothers. I then made my way to greet the esteemed Mr Maddin who was waiting patiently in line at the ‘Will Call’ wicket.
Adorned unrecognisably in my heavy-duty Ukrainian-immigrant-to-Canada Winnipeg chic, I jammed myself rudely in front of him in the line-up with nary a glance, nor word. I could feel Guy’s fury over this rude display of line jumping. I took further delight in imagining his steely Icelandic eyes boring deep holes of mounting anger in the back of my bushy rabbit-fur Dr Zhivago hat (purchased years ago from a street vendor on the Maidan of Kyiv, long before it was stained by the blood of Ukrainian freedom fighters).
I chose, however, not to let the magma well up too much in my old pal’s head and soon turned to offer my familiar visage, which was immediately met with a most incredulous jocularity from within his very being that filled that delectably bearded face of aquiline Nordic fortitude.
Where else could Jim Jarmusch launch a new opera?
Guy was torn about attending the post-concert reception. He’d never met Jarmusch and really wanted to, but he also expressed that this was ‘Jim’s night’ and he didn’t wish to cast any ‘pestilence’ over the affair with his presence. Guy did not elaborate beyond this. For some, he seldom needs to. I did, however, know immediately I’d not see him on the Piano Nobile later and that it would indeed be for very good reason.
To paraphrase James Cagney in Raoul Walsh’s Strawberry Blonde, ‘It’s just the kind of hairpin he is.’
And sure enough, Mr Jarmusch later expressed some disappointment that he’d yet to make Mr Maddin’s acquaintance. He furthermore noted: ‘Guy Maddin is an incredible musician. His films are incredibly and purely musical.’ Jarmusch is especially taken with Guy’s latest project, Spiritismes, an epic feature undertaking to remake lost films from the dawn of cinema that never existed but should have. ‘Guy wants to recreate things that don’t exist,’ Jarmusch intones respectfully. ‘Who else laments films and music that are lost and gone for all time? I want to hug Guy and yet, I don’t even know him.’
I suspect Maddin and Jarmusch know each other all too well, if only through the shared language of cinema and, of course, imagination.
‘Imagination is the strongest thing we have,’ says Jarmusch. ‘It’s always the beginning of any artistic or scientific endeavour.’
How appropriate, then, that we will soon have a chance to witness the blending of art and science. Below is a revised version of my Film Corner review of Tesla in New York.
A night sky, an ocean, wisps of white and a blue, so radiantly, yet alternately nocturnal and aquatic, cast a glow upon a stage empty of human figures on a landscape of instruments, music stands, speakers and amps – all standing forlorn in silhouette, waiting to be held, caressed and lovingly brought to life by the warmth of a human touch as the vaguely industrial aural pulsations of an unsettling drone wash over all in its path. It’s like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music on lithium – so uneasy, so disorienting, yet so lulling – a magnet drawing us closer to either death or rebirth. Or both.
A night sky, an ocean, wisps of white and a blue, so radiantly, yet alternately nocturnal and aquatic, cast a glow upon a stage empty of human figures on a landscape of instruments, music stands, speakers and amps – all standing forlorn in silhouette, waiting to be held, caressed and lovingly brought to life by the warmth of a human touch as the vaguely industrial aural pulsations of an unsettling drone wash over all in its path. It’s like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music on lithium – so uneasy, so disorienting, yet so lulling – a magnet drawing us closer to either death or rebirth. Or both. This is the appetiser to the main course of several new musical pieces performed by a myriad of brilliant, talented performers.
The performance is unveiled in the acoustically rich Centennial Concert Hall and though, in typical Winnipeg fashion, a Winnipeg Jets hockey game proves to be enough of a rival that the 2,000+ seats appear mostly empty – save for about one half the capacity of the majestic hall’s Orchestra level – those Winter City denizens who are not eyeball-glued to the town’s newly-restored-to-NHL-glory Jets are treated to an event of such artistic magnitude that they will carry the memories of it to their progeny and subsequent generations, long before they flutter away to their eventual respective deaths with the sounds and images of a work that seems destined for greatness dancing across their cerebella and into the warm, white light that awaits us all.
This was, to coin a phrase from one of my mentors, the late, great Meyer Nackimson, the legendary octogenarian film distributor who refused to retire and ran the MGM/UA distribution branch office on Hargrave Street in Winnipeg until he was forced to leave the movie business when the office was completely shut down in the late 80s:
‘Kid, Estelle and I saw the picture the other night and it was ONE HELLUVA GOOD SHOW!’
Though it was not a motion picture in the traditional sense (and the late Meyer and wife Estelle could have only viewed the proceedings from the Heavens), what we witnessed was indeed one helluva good show, , and most definitely a profoundly moving experience. Like so much great art presented within the picture-perfect magic of the proscenium, Tesla in New York was a visual and aural treat that made expert use of the stage in terms of the placement of singers, musicians and conductor/artistic director Alexander Mickelthwate (adorned ever so stylishly in a perfectly fitting suit of Winnipeg Grey as he wielded his mighty baton).
The simple, but beautifully focused and operated lighting cast its sweet glow over the renderings of exquisite music whilst, most notably, the aqua-blue screen morphed into an astounding montage of early Edison motion picture footage, edited by acclaimed experimental Winnipeg filmmaker and one-time Maddin collaborator Deco Dawson (who, according to Jarmusch, has ‘liquid hands’) and Matthew Patton (the New Music Festival’s fancifully chimeric co-curator) and under the guidance of Mr Jarmusch himself (who described his own words of direction in this matter as an ‘oblique strategy’).
Oblique or otherwise, it all pays off.
With Mickelthwate and company, plus the audience itself, being enveloped in the historic Edison footage (stolen for this production on, it seems, Tesla’s behalf in a perverse retaliatory act for all that Edison stole from Tesla – and, in fact, what Edison pilfered from pretty much everybody), I simply cannot imagine any subsequent production of this work without motion picture footage.
Though I was somewhat embarrassed to have used the clichéd word ‘electric’ to describe the production to Messrs Mickelthwate and Patton in their sumptuous Green Room after the show (well stocked with a fridge full of lovely spring water from the majestic Loni Beach in Gimli, Manitoba), I think, in retrospect, that it’s a perfectly fine word to have used.
Tesla, the Serbian inventor from Croatia who eventually found fame in the New World, was nothing if not the father of all things electric (in spite of Edison’s thefts) and it felt to me like the music and the performance were definitely infused with the very quality of electricity – aurally, emotionally, thematically and yes, at times, even visually.
Take, for example, the stunning, partially improvised Overture, wherein Mickelthwate guided singers and musicians alike to provide both melody and a fluffy, comfy bed for the onstage extension of the Lou-Reed-like Metal Machine Music drones in the pre-show. Kline and Jarmusch took to opposite ends of the stage and created some of the most haunting electric guitar feedback I’ve yet to experience, signalling precisely what this show seems to be all about: the force and power of electricity and all the ramifications and permutations of its magic as born from the mad genius of Tesla’s mind, and to put a perfectly appropriate fine point to it, Tesla’s boundless imagination.
Once the several pieces beyond this staggering overture began, one could, at points, gently close one’s eyes and launch into a very private place in one’ imagination to recreate Teslas’s heart and soul, allowing Kline’s often heart-breaking and alternately, elatedly soaring score to take us to those hidden, magical places of what Nikola Tesla wrought for us all, but what, he in fact, wrought for himself. The evening’s musicians and singers were all in superb and inspired form, but it would be remiss of me to not make special mention of the stunning work of mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, whose voice took us to places of both darkness and romance.
I must also single out countertenor David James (of the astonishing a cappella Hilliard Ensemble who so gorgeously opened the evening’s program). James fit this score like a glove. When I think of Tesla, I am always infused with thoughts of madness, genius, passion and an overwhelming sense of the unrequited (in terms of both love and career). James took me to places I both wanted to be and didn’t want to be and I can think of no better approach to a figure as important and complex as Nikola Tesla.
In all, the importance of this event to the cultural fabric of our new century seems clear. This was history in the making and from this point forward, one can but marvel and dream as to what magic will ultimately be produced when Kline and Jarmusch move forward with this work that explores one of the great human beings to have ushered us all into the 20th century.
Now, however, as we face in this 21st century both the power and danger of manmade resources and accomplishments, Tesla seems even more vital a figure for us to consider. To do so with art, with imagination, with music, with a myriad of multi-media and live performance seems very much a no-brainer. After the evening’s performance, Jarmusch cited the following inventions as the greatest manmade accomplishments: ‘Mapping the human genome, the Hubble telescope, the electric guitar and the bikini.’ One would like to think Tesla might approve.
Good Goddamn! My appetite has been whetted.
The buffet will follow and it will be sumptuous.
Tesla in New York, a collaboration between Phil Kline and Jim Jarmusch is currently a work-in-progress for an opera that will eventually take the world by storm. Thanks to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival, the first gold bricks have been laid down to take all of us to the Castle of Operatic Oz – a place of beauty, of imagination and wonder. Nikola Tesla himself would have it no other way.
From the Dominion of Canada, I bid you a hearty, ‘Bon Cinema!’
Cast: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
When considering Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s 1977 film adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel The Wages of Fear (first rendered for the big screen in 1953 by Henri-Georges Clouzot), I think it’s worth discussing what I did one month prior to laying my eyes on it.
On May 25 of that year, history was about to be made. Friend and colleague Sandi Krawchenko (KY58-AM radio news reporter) and I, the Winnipeg radio station’s precocious 18-year-old movie critic (still on the tail end of high school), were ushered past the hugest line-up for any movie I’d ever seen in my life by the house manager of the Grant Park Cinema. This grand former National General Cinerama hardtop still had its humungous curved screen, which would prove ideal to view the movie we were about to see.
Sandi would be doing a news item and I’d be providing a review. This was big news, after all. Legendary Variety scribe Art Murphy in his box-office-slanted industry review uttered sage words he’d never before slammed onto the page via an Underwood typewriter. Referring to the earning potential of this new movie, he predicted, ‘The sky’s the limit.’
And so it was that the movies would change – forever.
Oddly, I didn’t much care for Star Wars. About an hour into the movie, it started to bore me silly. God knows I loved science fiction and had seen all the Buck Rogers serials from the 40s, every notable SF picture (the good, the bad and the ugly) from the 50s and numerous dystopian masterworks from the 60s and 70s, but for me, it seemed like I was watching a dull, poorly plotted and far too insanely paced version of everything I’d seen and loved. For me, the only saving graces at the time were the indisputably astounding SFX and Harrison Ford.
That was it. I was pretty much infused with an overwhelming feeling of, ‘What’s the big deal?’ (Over the decades since, I’ve attempted to see the movie with fresh eyes, but it’s never really improved for me.) That was an incredibly depressing summer for a precocious movie lover. The same week Star Wars was breaking records, Smokey and the Bandit opened, and its returns, though not sky’s the limit, were definitely through the roof.
The month leading up to my first helping of Sorcerer was a litany of dull, check-your-brain-at-the-door blockbusters and sadly, this kept up for pretty much the rest of my life, though it was at the most egregious levels throughout the 1980s.
* * *
Finally, Sorcerer happened. One month after the crashing disappointment I experienced with Star Wars, I was happy again. Though I’d already seen Clouzot’s Wages of Fear two years earlier in repertory, I somehow had no idea that Friedkin’s film was a remake. All I knew was that it was the latest Friedkin and it had a really cool poster and ad slicks.
The film opens with four slam-bang stories, which each introduce the characters. Never did I have an idea where Sorcerer was going to go during the opening 20-or-so minutes. Even at that early age I preferred being surprised and loathed telegraphing in my movie experiences, and/or even worse, structural tent posts that pretty much told me what I was about to see and where it was going – both sins committed by the boring Star Wars.
During that virginal plunge, as on subsequent sloppy seconds, thirds and fourths, etc. and even now, in the brand new digital restoration overseen by Friedkin, Sorcerer was always and still remains a movie that repeatedly clubs you with a two-by-four across the teeth.
Each opening tale pulsates, as the entire film does, with Tangerine Dream’s heavy electronic score. Friedkin whizzes us all over the world – from Jerusalem (featuring Amidou as a Palestinian terrorist who sets off a deadly bomb), New Mexico (wherein Francisco Rabal presides over a deadly hit), Paris (charting a bank scandal that leads to the flight of bank president Bruno Cremer) and finally, New Jersey (with Roy Scheider as the getaway car driver in an armed robbery gone very wrong).
At this point, during my first helping of the movie, I was still blissfully unaware of Sorcerer’s connection to The Wages of Fear. What I recognized, from so many 70s movies I’d already seen, was that I was watching a hard-driving crime picture full of the kind of existential male angst that tantalized me even as a kid.
I was in Heaven.
Once the movie collects the four men in the hellhole one-mule-town in the middle of Nowheresville, South America, and we follow their squalid, desperate lives in hiding, I do recall that Sorcerer was starting to feel awfully familiar. Once it’s established that the American oil mine has exploded nearby, I realized I was watching a remake. By this point, it mattered not. I was hooked.
From here, Friedkin stays close to the Clouzot. The four desperate men are hired to drive two trucks, one of the vehicles christened with the name ‘Sorcerer’ (no need to spoil how and why for those who’ve not yet partaken), and transport dangerous cartons of nitro across 200 miles of the most rugged territory imaginable. The goal is to get the deadly explosive to the burning rig to blow it out.
Where Friedkin departs from the French Master is in the amount of money he has to play with. Picture, sound and production design are out of this world and in sharp contrast to Clouzot’s, which is a first rate reproduction of South America in France, no less, but sans the tropical jungles and sheer magnitude of the mountains Friedkin gets to play with. Clouzot himself spared no time and expense and indeed, like Friedkin, went over budget. Mind you, not to the tune of over $20million in 1977 dollars.
The drive through the jungles with narrow unkempt roads and breakneck cliff sides is scary as hell. Somehow, Clouzot’s is nail-bitingly suspenseful, to be sure, but Friedkin pushes the envelope with everything his talent, and, frankly, budget can buy. He’s made an existential action picture, but it’s so deliciously over the top that biting our nails is a mere appetizer to the jolts he gives us to inspire the expulsion of heavier loads from within our bowels.
Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green add in a brief, tense and violent confrontation with bandits and don’t explore the tale’s homoerotic angle (which Friedkin needed, no doubt, to save up for Cruising), but it’s basically the same story. The big difference is that Clouzot puts more energy into the characters, treating us to lengthy dialogue scenes and a faith-based Catholic subtext, whereas Friedkin gives us the simple American brushstrokes of what each of the men represents and allows action – not just the manly derring-do, but the physical manner in which the characters conduct themselves – to provide a wholly unique approach to character.
The final haunting ride to the mine stuns us in both versions, but Friedkin places a great deal of emphasis upon a series of horrific optical effects involving double and triple exposures and a variety of colour effects, which again, plunge us closer to horror rather than suspense.
I find it especially interesting that Friedkin employs certain stylistic flourishes one would more likely find in a scary movie, and after seeing the film several times, it makes perfect sense for his terse, stripped-down approach to be juxtaposed with dollops of shock galore. He carves out much of the overt subtext, which Clouzot so expertly weaves into his adaptation, and replaces it with pure visceral terror.
What could be more infused with dread than a suicide run? What could be more terrifying than driving over impossible terrain with nitro in your truck? What could possibly be more downright frightening than the sight of a swinging rope bridge with rotting planks in a torrential downpour with rushing rapids and rocks just below?
When one thinks back on The Exorcist, some of the most chilling aspects of the film are in its first half when Linda Blair’s Regan is being poked, prodded and near-tortured during the endless series of medical tests under the glare of fluorescent hospital lights. These sequences and Friedkin’s approach to Sorcerer are perfectly in keeping with a Val Lewton-esque approach to horror – the things that really scare us are the unknown; the things we are chilled by are the everyday elements within our environment that become aberrations of what we expect. One needs only to listen to Friedkin’s superb analysis of The Leopard Man on the DVD commentary track of Warner Home Video’s legendary box set, The Val Lewton Collection, to find corroboration of this influence (in addition to Friedkin’s early beginnings in news, public affairs and documentary).
Sorcerer, as it turned out, was a complete and utter disaster at the box office during that summer of 1977. Even the critical response ranged from damning at worst, to non-committal at best. I recall sitting in a huge 1000-seat cinema on an opening day showing that had no more than a handful of psychopaths in the audience. Adjusted for inflation, Sorcerer remains, in today’s dollars, a $200-million picture with a gross box office of about half that amount.
Even if it had been released in the pre-Jaws exhibition-distribution environment, which opened the floodgates for the likes of Star Wars to come close to destroying the movies as we knew them, one doubts it would have made that much more coin. However, it might have been enough so that eventual ancillaries would have been more properly exploited to move Sorcerer closer and quicker to a figure far less in the red, if not in a slight black.
The film’s life in home video was spotty during the Beta/VHS era, and once DVD came along, Universal Pictures (one of two studios, the other being Paramount, that were needed to finance it) released an insulting, cropped standard frame version that looked like it had been mastered in a one-light colour timing from a one-inch master used for VHS.
Now, the wrongs might become right again. Friedkin has been able to supervise the 4K digital transfer and restoration to digital Blu-Ray from the original elements. Luckily, for some, a limited theatrical release of Sorcerer awaits us prior to its late-April Blu-ray release in North America.
Sorcerer is released on Blu-ray (R A/1) by Warner Home Video on 22 April 2014. The disc comes only in special packaging with a book and no other added value items.
Here in the Dominion of Canada, the Toronto International Film Festival’s TIFF Bell Lightbox will be screening Sorcerer theatrically on 12, 15 and 18 April 2014 as a TIFF Cinematheque Special Screening. This is part of a grand spring series that includes a new 35mm restoration of Joseph Losey’s The Servant, new 35mm prints of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, Nagisa Ôshima’s Boy, Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, a new digital restoration of the 248 minute ‘roadshow’ version of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, new 4K digital restorations of Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House/Hausu, John Sturges’s The Great Escape, Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion, and 35mm Archival prints of Humberto Solas’s Lucia and most excitingly, H.G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear.
Watch the trailer for Sorcerer:
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews